Empower Wisconsin | July 2, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Mike Byrnes doesn’t think his popular small-town tavern will survive another lockdown.
“We already went through three months of this. We just got our customers back. Now this is happening,” said Bynes, who has owned Mickey D’s Corner Bar in Dane for a dozen years.
On Wednesday, Madison and Dane County’s joint health department ordered all bars in the county to shut down indoor service amid rising COVID-19 cases in the county. Health officials say half of the 13,000 infections statewide over the past month have hit people ages 18-29.
“For the past week, Dane County has seen a sustained, high number of cases. After consultation with our contact tracing team, gatherings and visits to bars and restaurants continue to be implicated in interviews with cases,” Janel Heinrich, Public Health Madison & Dane County’s director said in a statement.
But the sweeping order is a huge blow to businesses that have been hardest hit by restrictive government health orders.
“We’ll probably go broke,” Byrnes said. “This is a long time not to have customers. I’m almost about ready to cry.”
Tavern League of Wisconsin lobbyist Scott Stenger told Fox6 News that public health officials are unfairly punishing bar owners, even as they turn a blind eye to the health risks of massive crowds of demonstrators engaged in “peaceful” protests against racism and police brutality.
“To make out bars to be a scapegoat of an increase when you’ve had historic protests for three weeks straight — it seems a bit irresponsible to not factor that in,” Stenger said.
The strict health order also reduces indoor dining at Dane County residents from 50 percent customer capacity to 25 percent.
Bars may serve take-out. Indoor gatherings must be limited to 10 or fewer people (not including employees). Bars and restaurants may provide outdoor seating, if they follow social distancing rules.
That consideration is hollow for tavern owners on hot summer days in Wisconsin, Byrnes said.
“You can’t serve outside when it’s 90 degrees. Who wants to sit in the hot sun drinking a warm beer?”
Byrnes acknowledged that some of his patrons had not followed social distancing guidelines despite the bars efforts to remove bar stools from the main floor.
Scott Manley, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s executive vice president of Government Relations, said the state shutdown orders have had a disastrous impact on the hospitality and tourism industries. The latest “moving of the goalposts” by Dane County is only going to worsen the economic burden on small businesses, he said.
The broader issue, the business advocate said, is Dane County health officials are operating under “tenuous legal authority.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court in May struck down the Evers administration’s lockdown, and late last month a Racine County Judge slapped a restraining order on Racine’s oppressive public health rules.
“It’s insult to injury for small business owners to know that their government is putting them out of business and probably doesn’t have the legal authority to do it,” Manley said.
Byrnes said he and his wife will have to dip into their savings to stay afloat, but that will only last so long. Dane County’s tightening of the screw will hit small-town taverns even harder, he said.
“We have two other little bars in town. We all get along, we’re good neighbors. The three of us ain’t going to survive,” the bar owner said.