As he has done in similar COVID-19 restriction lawsuits, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed a motion in Scott County Circuit Court to join the lawsuit filed by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and Evans Orchard and Cider Mill, LLC. against Gov. Andy Beshear.
Last week Ag Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Jenny Evans of Evans Orchard, a Georgetown agri-business, held a news conference announcing the lawsuit against Beshear and local health officials on the pandemic restrictions charging the restrictions are damaging her business. She is a fifth generation farmer and her father, Kevan is considering retirement, she said. She has a 14-year-old daughter to whom she hopes will be able to eventually pass the farm one day, Evans said.
Evans Orchard and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture are filing a lawsuit against the Beshear administration, Dr. Crystal Miller and the Wedco Health Department, Eric Friedlander of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Steven Stack as commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health in Scott County Circuit Court, said Quarles, whose family are also Scott County farmers.
“We’ve unfortunately seen a pattern during this pandemic where time after time Kentuckians have had to resort to costly litigation to stop the Governor’s arbitrary and oppressive executive orders,” Cameron said. “And, time after time, those Kentuckians have prevailed in court. Virtually every court considering a constitutional challenge to one of Gov. Beshear’s executive orders during this state of emergency has declared it unconstitutional and enjoined him from further enforcement.
“Evans Orchard is a Kentucky business that is trying to remain in operation while also protecting public health, and we’re proud to stand alongside them and Commissioner Quarles in court to fight to keep the business open and profitable.”
The lawsuit comes as 40 of 50 states are reporting significant increases in COVID-19 cases. Although Kentucky’s cases are increasing it is considered one of the states that is “flat.” The lawsuit was announced June 30, the same day state restrictions increased on the number of people allowed in a gathering to be up to 50.
“At a time when states to our south are reporting over 8,000 new COVID-19 cases each day, the parties bringing this lawsuit want to eliminate public health guidance and requirements that are keeping Kentuckians safe,” states a release from the Beshear administration. “All businesses have to follow the same rules and guidance for outdoor weddings and other activities.
“We are confident in the legality of these rules and have identified numerous legal issues with the suit, including that it was filed in the wrong place. If parties here won and the virus spreads because the facility was not following proper guidance, it would threaten the reopening of our economy and public schools.”
Evans said the lawsuit was a last resort.
“This is hard,” Evans said. “We have never been political. We don’t allow political signs. We value our community. We want to do the right thing.”
She has reached out to various state and local agencies seeking guidance on complying with state and local restrictions, but there has been little to no response, she said. Beshear’s office has been directly approached and received no response and when she was able to speak with a state agency about the restrictions and where her business — an agri-tourism operation — was categorized as to when they could reopen she was told they did not know, she said.
Included on Evans Orchard and Cider Miller is a 96,000 sq. ft. playground, “...bigger than two football fields, large enough to build 20 houses…” and a local health official told Evans Orchard they could not allow more than 10 individuals at a time, Quarles said comparing the area to a park. In another instance, Evans Orchard waited five days before receiving a response from a local public health official, he said.
Evans Orchard and Cider Mill is one of 548 agri-tourism businesses in Kentucky. Over its history, the farm has produced at various times tobacco, alfalfa, cattle, pumpkins, apples and other farm products. When tobacco began phasing out, the Evans family diversified its operations and became more of an agri-tourism operation, which includes the playground, pick-your-own patches of fruits and flowers, a cafe and bakery, a retail market and an Event Barn for weddings an other events.
The play area has a capacity of 2,000 people under normal circumstances, Evans said. Last year, the playground area received $266,969 in revenues, including $30,484 from Jan. 1 - June 25, 2019. From Jan. 1 through June 25, 2020, the playground has generated $2,115. Last year, the Event Barn hosted 21 events and generated about $125,800 in rental fees. In 2020, some 20 events were scheduled for the Event Barn, but none have been held to date, including seven that have already been cancelled or rescheduled.
Evans Orchard has 40 employees and has not laid off anyone, Evans said. They have made payroll through the Payroll Protection Plan stimulus checks, she said. Before the pandemic the farm purchased an adjacent farm and had plans to expand.
“Evans Orchard is a family-operated business in a small, rural community and we want to be able to open in a way that respects public health guidelines and also protects our family, friends and customers,” she said. “That’s why we have been so proactive in reaching out to our local health department; we want to do what is right to protect everyone.
“However, the reality of these orders, and the way they have been issued and enforced, have set our dreams back years. I pray our community understands that we take these actions today to protect everything we have invested into our small family farm.”
Mike Scogin can be reached at email@example.com.