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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

COVID orders fuel extremism in tiny Upper Peninsula town. Some fear unrest.

CALUMET — There wasn’t a face mask – or an empty table – last week in Café Rosetta, where dozens of diners ordered from an eclectic menu including avocado toast and the “freedom breakfast special.”

A poster in the entryway was the only visible nod to the pandemic that has killed more than 14,000 Michigan residents. It named and pictured a local health official tasked with enforcing state orders, labeling her a “tyrant” and questioning if she is trying to “brainwash” local children in socialism.

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It had been nearly two months since the state of Michigan suspended Café Rosetta’s food license for flouting COVID-19 rules, four days since a judge fined owners $7,500 for contempt of court and six days before the state would allow restaurants to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity.

But the cafe doors remained open and business was booming in downtown Calumet, a onetime copper mining capital in the Upper Peninsula, where Amy Heikkinen has kept her restaurant running in a fight against the state she contends is about economic survival.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been able to build my business, where I don’t have to rely on child support or food stamps or anything like that, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Heikkinen said in an interview at the restaurant, describing herself as a single mother of six who fled an abusive relationship before buying the business with her brother several years ago.

Her quaint cafe has emerged as an unlikely flashpoint, adding fuel to the flames of a growing anti-government movement in this poor and rural region. In recent weeks, residents have hosted a mask burning ceremony, an armed demonstration and a caravan to Washington D.C., where a local man allegedly broke into the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“We’re at a tipping point, and I think there’s risk of civil unrest at any given moment,” said Houghton County Commissioner Roy Britz, a Republican who also works as deputy chief of police for nearby Michigan Tech University.  “People are tired of getting pushed around.” 

Built up by European immigrants who came to work in long-closed mines, Houghton County is rich in architecture and history, but struggling like much of the Upper Peninsula. In the village of Calumet, which has about 750 residents, median household income was $21,389 in 2019, roughly one third the state average.

There are liberal pockets, but a strong conservative base in Calumet made the town an unlikely campaign stop for Donald Trump Jr., who stumped for his dad there last fall and visited the Café Rosetta in a bid to rally rural voters.

Lately, rancor typically reserved for social media has spilled onto the streets of Calumet’s charming downtown, a microcosm of national conditions experts say have led to a rise in extremism and polarization.

At the center of the storm is Erik Kiilunen, who is a successful businessman and part of what he called a conservative “Patriots Club” that has grown rapidly in recent months. 

Early in the pandemic, Kiilunen founded a group called “All Business is Essential” that ran billboards downstate encouraging companies to defy health orders. He’s since led a revolt against the regional health department, organized fundraisers for Café Rosetta, questioned voting machine accuracy in public meetings, joined the “stop the steal’ rally for then-President Donald Trump and hired a public relations firm to spread his criticism of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

“If you have someone who can dictate what you can wear, where you can work and when you can work, that’s called a dictator,” Kiilunen said after finishing lunch at the cafe, where he argued COVID deaths are statistically insignificant compared to genocides orchestrated by tyrants including Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin.  

Michigan has become a “totalitarian” state, COVID-19 tests are “bullshit,” and vaccines are a “grand experiment on our public,” he told Bridge Michigan in a series of monologues, describing himself as a student of history compelled to fight government overreach. 

Critics fear he’s fomenting extremism in a region with a militia presence that knows the danger of misinformation all too well: Dozens of children were fatally trampled here on Christmas Eve in 1913, when a man falsely yelled “fire” in a crowded union hall during a strike by copper miners.

“What we are seeing here is sort of a microcosm of what’s happening at the national level in that you have this sort of outspoken, charismatic leader,” said Sharon Stroll, a physician in nearby Houghton and liberal activist. 

“At the national level, we had (former President Donald) Trump. Locally, we have Erik Kiilunen, who is making these sweeping false claims.”

Conspiracies collide

Experts say the global pandemic and Trump’s unproven claims of a “rigged” election created ripe conditions for right-wing conspiracy theories to thrive, especially among people already skeptical about the government. 

There’s evidence people who are more isolated have a greater tendency to go down conspiracy rabbit holes, said Josh Pasek, an associate professor of media and communication and political science at the University of Michigan.

It appears Karl Dresch went in deep. 

While it’s not yet clear what Dresch did inside the U.S. Capitol, the Calumet man is accused of participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection and charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct, disrupting official functions and obstructing an official proceeding, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Before he traveled to Washington D.C., where Trump supporters attempted to block congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s election win, Dresch was immersed in the local resistance movement against what he called a “hoax” virus.

Dresch, 40, signed his name to a full-page ad in the Daily Mining Gazette newspaper that Kiilunen had paid for to lambaste the local health department. 

On Facebook, Dresch shared a video of a Kiilunen speech in Houghton, praised Café Rosetta for standing up what he called the “communist state of Michigan” and told his friends that Kiilunen’s team was filling buses to the Trump rally in D.C.

Kiilunen told Bridge he does not personally know Dresch, and while acknowledged he was in D.C. for the demonstration, he said he drove with his family and was not part of the local bus trip that he had encouraged.

“I didn’t storm the Capitol or anything, but I was out there,” Kiilunen told Bridge after Dresch’s arrest, going on to suggest a grand conspiracy. “There is no pandemic. This was a manufactured crisis to allow Biden to steal the election. As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what happened.”

In the run-up to the Capitol insurrection, Dresch had become increasingly hostile on Facebook, where he shared conspiracies about COVID and Trump, warning that there would be “war everywhere if we let this election get stolen.” 

He accused Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson of “treacherous election thievery,” and advocated for a “citizen’s arrest” of Whitmer. Extremists arrested in October for allegedly plotting to kidnap the governor “made a procedural error and she got off on a technicality,” Dresch wrote.

Dresch sold Confederate stickers and flags out of his home and revealed overt racism on Gab, a conservative social media network, where he used the N-word and racial epithets against Jews. He followed known neo-Nazis and alt-right leaders. In one post, he smeared gay people and suggested “death to the lot.”

There is no evidence Dresch had a gun with him at the U.S. Capitol, but in a subsequent search of his Calumet home, the FBI found 160 rounds of ammunition in a backpack he had carried to and from D.C., according to federal prosecutors. 

The ammunition, along with his personal gun collection, compelled a judge to deny Dresch bail pending trial.

“antifa did not take the capitol.that was Patriots,” Dresch wrote in a Facebook post after the riot. “... we the people took back our house, the news is all bullshit.and now those traitors Know who’s really in charge.”

As of last week, the twin Trump flags that had draped Dresch’s home in FBI surveillance photos were gone. But smaller reminders of his political allegiance remained: Trump and “don’t tread on me” stickers were affixed to his front door, and a 3-inch Confederate “welcome” flag hung next to the porch.

Several locals told Bridge Michigan they did not know much about Dresch beyond his home decorations. His father, however, was well known as a former Michigan Technological University professor, state legislator and private investigator before his death in 2006.

Stephen Dresch was a “quite a colorful character” with an “almost genius-level” intellect, said Houghton County Sheriff Brian McLean, who knows the family.  “I found him very likeable, and Karl too.”

Karl Dresch was jailed in 2014 after fleeing police while intoxicated and leading police in a high-speed chase over the Wisconsin-Michigan border, but McLean said he had not posed any recent problems in Houghton County.

“He certainly overstepped his bounds (in D.C.), and he’ll have to pay the piper on that one, but he hasn’t been a danger to our community at all,” McLean said of Dresch. “He’s strong-willed and strong-principled, but there are times when you have to exercise a little restraint.”

The Rosetta resistance

Houghton County was largely spared from Michigan’s first wave of COVID-19,  but case counts spiked here after Christmas and briefly ranked among the highest in the state on a per capita basis. Last week, the local middle school was closed for in-person instruction because of an outbreak linked to seven students. 

All told, the county of 37,000 residents has had 1,998 COVID-19 cases since last year and 32 deaths, according to state records.

Kate Beer, director of the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, said the COVID’s late arrival made it “hard” for residents to take it seriously because “we didn’t have that rush up front like everyone else did.”

“People got tired of waiting for it to show up, so they’re very burnt out,” she said.

Kiilunen, the local businessman, began speaking out against state orders early in the pandemic. When one of his companies briefly closed, he started the “All Business is Essential” group to urge “economic disobedience.” 

His resistance to government, though, didn’t extend to coronavirus relief: One of his manufacturing businesses received a $203,045 forgivable federal loan to retain 18 local jobs.

Likewise, Café Rosetta received a $35,238 forgivable loan to retain 27 jobs as part of the coronavirus stimulus, records show.

Kiilunen’s efforts to champion Café Rosetta have helped divide Calumet, residents told Bridge, with one woman comparing it to the split of allegiances between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers in the western Upper Peninsula. 

“We have a small community where everybody affects everybody,” said John Slayton of Big Traverse Bay, a neighboring community. 

Kiilunen and the cafe’s owner, Heikkinen, are members of the First Apostolic Lutheran Church of Calumet, a conservative denomination founded by Finnish immigrants who came to the region to work mines. 

Members prefer to keep to themselves and are wary of outsiders, Slayton said, so there was “already some division in the community” and “what Kiilunen is doing compounds it.”

There have been verbal confrontations in downtown Calumet, including a dispute between Kiilunen and a masked-up man who may have tried to take photos of cafe patrons. For many, things went too far in early January when an armed man stood guard outside Café Rosetta.

Heikkinen said the man, who carried a long gun, was a member of the “Patriots Club” and mistakenly believed she was going to be arrested. 

“When you have a business that is publicly defying restrictions, it’s a beacon to those who support that kind of defiance,” said Tom Tikkanen, who represents Calumet on the Houghton County Commission, which last month urged Whitmer to lift regulations on restaurants and hockey rinks. “But for people who are scared of the virus, which is understandable, they are aghast.”

Because of the drama, “I know we have people who are afraid to come downtown,” said Christine Voelker, co-owner of Copper World, a gift shop across the street from Café Rosetta. “When you have a large group of people standing outside of a business, it just makes everyone a little apprehensive.”

Kiilunen said the “Patriots Club” formed last fall to “push back” against health orders. It’s ballooned from roughly 40 to 250 people, he told Bridge Michigan. 

“We just get together and we have discussions,” Kiilunen said. “We talk about what’s going on in this world. This is a very conservative town, extremely conservative. And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, we have to do something.’”

For Heikkinen, that meant keeping her restaurant open even after Whitmer ordered all restaurants closed on Nov. 18. Statewide, industry groups said 3,000 bars and restaurants have closed in the past year because of the pandemic and related restrictions.

“It was either close down or die a slow death, so we decided to stand up and hire an attorney,” Heikkenin told Bridge.

Kiilunen helped her raise more than $75,000 for legal fees and promotion by a public relations firm, but “anything else that he’s doing, politically or otherwise, I’m not part of that,” she said. “It’s not political for me. It’s just the right to work.”

Health officials allege Heikkinen had been flouting mask and capacity rules for months before refusing to close her dining room. When the state allowed indoor dining rooms to reopen at 25 percent capacity on Monday, Heikkinen was instead hit with a second $7,500 court fine for operating without a food license. 

“The whole situation, in my opinion, is extremely unfortunate,” said Tanya Rule, director of environmental health for the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department, which recently announced it will reward “compliant” food establishments with a 25 percent discount on annual inspection fees. 

“(Heikkinen’s) personal opinion does not put her above the law. She does not have a license to be in operation.”

Public health threats

Rule, the local health official pictured on the protest sign in Café Rosetta’s entry, told Bridge she and her staff have been subject to online threats for “doing our jobs” and have forwarded “numerous” posts to state authorities. 

Michigan State Police officials told Bridge the department alerted Rule to an online discussion about a possible protest at her home, but that “conversation did not appear to be threatening in nature.”

Despite court orders and fines, neither state nor local police have moved to forcibly shut down the cafe. The licensing dispute is a “civil matter,” not a criminal one, said McLean, the Houghton County sheriff.

Activists have been “picking on” local health officials, McLean acknowledged. Deputies have provided backup during health department visits to the cafe to “make sure nothing goes wrong,” but there have been “no assaults or anything like that,” he said. “We’re kind of like the middle man. The referee, if you will.”

Heikkinen contends her restaurant is operating safely because it has not been linked to a single case of COVID-19. But that claim is disingenuous, according to Rule, because “a lot of” locals who have contracted the virus have also refused to cooperate with contact tracing investigations. 

“I’m aware of cases that are associated with that facility, based on names of people who I know have been in there within two weeks prior to their positive case … even though they didn’t identify it for the investigation or refused to say so,” Rule said.

In court filings, Heikkinen’s attorney has argued the state violated her constitutional rights by treating restaurants differently than other businesses that were allowed to serve indoor customers while dining rooms were closed.

State Sen. Ed McBroom of Vulcan and Rep. Greg Markannen of Hancock, Republicans who represent the region in the Legislature, have generally supported Café Rosetta, calling it the “latest target” in a bureaucratic crackdown by the Whitmer administration. The Houghton County Board nearly blocked funding to the regional health department in protest.

But Heikkinen has so far lost every legal fight. 

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development suspended Café Rosetta’s food license on Dec. 2, and an administrative law judge affirmed the decision. Ingham County Circuit Judge Wanda Strokes issued a temporary restraining order against the restaurant on Dec. 30 and then a preliminary injunction on Jan. 22 increasing a contempt fine to the maximum allowed under state law. 

“While this court empathizes with all companies, large and small, that may have licenses suspended, the laws of our state form the basis of our democracy and must be followed,” Stokes wrote in a recent opinion. “When individuals decide to violate the law, it’s crucial that they realize there are consequences.”

Locals expect the controversy to die down as restrictions are eased on restaurants and dining rooms, but some civic boosters fear the dispute has given the town a black eye. 

“For me, it’s kind of like a very unfortunate glitch in the story of contemporary Calumet, which is one of reinvention,” said Andrew Ranville, a village council member who had spent summers in the region while running an arts nonprofit and moved here full-time three years ago. 

Walking through a downtown blanketed by snow, Ranville noted the historic architecture in the onetime boom town and pointed out several storefronts recently renovated through a state community development block grant. An investor just purchased a handful of downtown properties because he “fell in love with this place” and is “putting resources” into renovations, Ranville said.

“Regardless of what we want to say about executive orders at the state level, you can’t have a business operating without a food license,” he said of Café Rosetta. “To me, that’s just common sense.”

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