Judge rejects state request to shut down Owosso barbershop

Posted at 2:07 PM, May 21, 2020

DETROIT — A judge on Thursday rejected a request to force scissors out of the hands of a defiant Michigan barber during the coronavirus pandemic.

The state health department failed to show that Karl Manke’s shop was a specific threat to public health, Shiawassee County Judge Matthew Stewart said.

Manke reopened his shop in Owosso on May 4, drawing customers from across the state who were inspired by his plea for freedom from a government shutdown. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said barber shops and hair salons are risky places because of the contagious virus.

Manke, 77, has received at least two tickets for violating Whitmer’s orders, and his barber license was suspended last week. Nonetheless, he said he’s still cutting hair — “Oh, heavens yes” — including the hair of a squirming 2-year-old Thursday.

“Listen, I’ve been in this business for 59 years. She wants to come cut my hands off, that’s another story,” Manke said in an interview, referring to the governor.

Earlier, a judge held a hearing via video conference on the Whitmer administration’s request for an injunction to close the shop. More than 400 people watched online as the state argued that Manke was violating health department orders.

“People can’t simply say, ‘I don’t agree’ and do whatever they want,” Assistant Attorney General Joseph Potchen said. “It’s not how our legal system works.”

But Stewart said photos and an affidavit from Michigan’s chief medical executive weren’t enough to show that hair cutting and the shop conditions would contribute to the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19.

“That’s not enough to tip the scales, no matter how great the public emergency,” said Stewart, who nonetheless called it a “close call.”

He repeatedly noted that authorities could have arrested Manke if they believed his shop was a steady danger.

“You can’t just argue COVID is awful, it’s killing people. Who disputes that?” Manke’s attorney, Dave Kallman, said later. “They have to show the barber shop is spreading the virus. The judge saw it clearly.”

While Manke’s case was in court, Whitmer lifted restrictions on more parts of Michigan’s economy, although barber shops and hair salons weren’t included.

With his outspoken, gregarious style, Manke has become a hero to some people. He cut hair for free Wednesday during a protest at the Capitol.