Smokehouse and Mirrors

A COVID Vindication Story
Outside view of Iron Pig Smokehouse as trolley passes. Sign reads “Iron Pig Smokehouse.”

Ian Murphy has owned and operated the Iron Pig Smokehouse in Gaylord, Michigan, for nearly seven years. And for half that time, he’s been embroiled in a legal battle against state and local officials just to keep the doors open.

But Murphy’s case is about much more than just the Iron Pig. It’s also about the scope of government and the constitutional boundaries that Michigan officials seem determined to cross. 

Unfortunately for them, Murphy keeps winning.

His latest win in court came last month, when Circuit Court Judge Colin Hunter ruled that the state policies cited by Murphy’s local health department to enforce COVID-19 restrictions violated the state’s separation of powers. Previously, in January 2022, Judge Hunter struck down a similar statute used by the state Department of Health during the pandemic, and for the same reason: Michigan’s executive branch does not have the sweeping authority to shut down businesses or limit gatherings of people. That authority belongs only to the state legislature, e.g., Michiganders’ elected representatives.

In other words, unelected administrative bodies, often staffed entirely by bureaucrats from a single party (ahem ahem), do not get to unilaterally force their will onto the public and deprive voters of their core liberties. Only the public’s elected officials can do that, and even they must act within the confines of the law, as Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer learned the hard way when the Michigan Supreme Court struck down her COVID-19 edicts as beyond her scope of authority.

And yet, it was the unelected administrators that targeted Murphy during the pandemic after he decided to reopen the Iron Pig in November 2020. 

Like other restaurant owners in the state, Murphy respected the state’s initial shutdown in the Spring of 2020. But when the second shutdown was mandated later that year, Murphy decided he wouldn’t subject his employees to financial uncertainty right before the holidays. 

Listen to Iron Pig owner Ian Murphy on the Enjoyer Podcast with James Dickson.

Moreover, nobody involved with the Iron Pig had gotten COVID. If the point of the shutdown was to “stop the spread,” shouldn’t there at least have been a “spread” to stop?

The day after Murphy reopened the restaurant, officials from the Health Department of Northwestern Michigan (at the behest of the state Department of Health) stopped by and handed him a cease and desist order—not just for the Iron Pig, but also for his second business, Greystone Coffee Company, which had remained completely closed. Murphy is still fighting the cease and desist to this day.

Then came the state liquor commission, which suspended Murphy’s liquor license and slapped him with a $500 fine. The Michigan Department of Rural Development wanted its own pound of flesh and issued an emergency order suspending Murphy’s food license. 

In total, Murphy had five government agencies gunning him down for noncompliance. But if they thought throwing the entire power of the state would force Murphy to submit, they were wrong.

“This is not about COVID,” he said. “We have to remove the emotion from this thing and look at how the levers of power are being used. Because they used the executive powers based on a Riots Act from 1945—they dug it up, and they used it for health. And they shut me down because I wouldn’t comply with it.”

Murphy is referring to the Emergency Powers of Governor Act, a law passed in 1945 that gave the governor authority to issue local curfews. When it struck down Whitmer’s use of the law to enforce COVID-19 mandates, the Michigan Supreme Court agreed that the law and its authority were not applicable to the pandemic.

Murphy said he also hopes his example will serve as a rebuke to the social abuse he experienced. 

“I took a lot of s***, a lot of grief, for not being a team player, for putting my community at risk. People were taking pics in front of my home, I was doxxed on Thanksgiving day after we reopened, I was stalked. And I’ve lost some friends over this. It was so easy for others to assume I was some racist, right-wing hack, a conspiracy theorist and Trumper—which I’m not. But no one asked for my political affiliation, they just assumed it because I was questioning authority,” he said.

Indeed, the public’s response is directly tied to the state’s. Government officials will happily push on the limits of their power, as long as the public doesn’t push back. 

But Murphy did, and he’s not finished. He has since had his liquor and food licenses restored, and the Iron Pig continues to receive support from patrons who not only enjoy great barbecue but appreciate the values its owner has been willing to defend. 

Murphy said he welcomes Judge Hunter’s latest decision slapping down the local health department for abusing its power, which the Health Department of Northwestern Michigan’s board declined to appeal. Murphy knows, however, that the government will simply bide its time and sit on the COVID powers it wrongly took for itself. 

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I know this: government does not relent its power. I fully expect them to drag us back in court again,” he said. “I dare them to try and come back and take this power.”

He said he wants people to understand that this is “a fight for, not against.” It’s a “fight for our business, family, employees, not a fight against our government.” He added, “I’ve got a restaurant to run, you think I don’t have more important things to do?”

“But when it comes to my business,” Murphy said, “I’m going to fight back. I’m not stopping. Government likes its power, but I’ve taken it twice from them. And we’re not done yet.”

Kaylee McGhee White is the Restoring America editor for the Washington Examiner, a Tony Blankley fellow for the Steamboat Institute, and a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum. She grew up in Detroit and graduated from Hillsdale College. Follow her on X at @KayleeDMcGhee.

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