Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 9, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The “I feel your pain” governor Tony Evers is not.
At a video press conference Wednesday, the governor seemed to shrug off concerns that his new emergency order capping public gatherings at 25 percent would devastate already struggling bars, restaurants and others in the hospitality trade.
First, the Democrat couldn’t get straight the duration of his own order — which took effect Thursday and is to remain in place through Nov. 6.
“This order is two weeks long. It’s not forever,” Evers mistakenly stated. His legal counsel had to clarify that, no, the order spans a month.
Regardless, the governor said, it’s “temporary and it’s not closing anything.”
“They still have 25 percent capacity to work with,” he dismissively said.
Think about what it means for a restaurant to lose 75 percent of business overnight. Think about what it would mean for a family to go without most of its income for 30 days or more.
It doesn’t seem like the governor has considered the impact of his edict — again.
It’s not just 30 days, says Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. It’s four weeks on top of seven months of lockdowns and limitations and consumer fear — an awful stretch for a hospitality industry hit hard by COVID-19 and government policy.
“We are looking at a potential loss of 50 percent of our restaurants,” Hillmer said, referring to a WRA poll taken this week. “They are at their end.” She said most of her members have gone through their federal Paycheck Protection Program funding, and many have spent through their savings.
Evers’ order comes at a bad time on top of a bad year, just as fall and cooler weather kick in and outdoor table service — the saving grace for so many restaurants this summer — comes to an end.
“Further layoffs are inevitable. There is no way they can sustain and not have layoffs,” Hillmer said.
Armando Perez, owner of the Rock & Roll Cafe in Stevens Point, told Wisconsin Spotlight that he just hired four servers. He will have to lay them off in the wake of Evers’ capacity-cutting order, which will reduce his 50-seat restaurant to about a dozen chairs.
More worrisome, is that one month may be just the beginning with a flip-flopping governor at the helm.
“As it currently stands, it’s a 30-day order. As we know from past history dating back from the first order, the Safer-At-Home order he issued, he extended that one,” said Scott Manley, executive vice president of Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.
After initially saying he would not lock down the state as the pandemic struck in March, Evers within days shifted his position and issued his stay-at-home order. His Department of Health Services secretary-designee then illegally extended the lockdown until the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the order unenforceable because Evers failed to get the input of the Legislature. Disregarding the ruling, the governor and his health chief have issued subsequent emergency declarations, including a mask mandate and the public gathering order.
Evers is already speaking the language of lockdown, pointing to what could be a repeat of an economically and societally disastrous repeat of last spring.
“I’m once again calling on Wisconsinites to hunker down and stay at home as much as possible and limit travel to the essential needs,” the governor said during the press conference, warning of “dire” days of escalating COVID-19 numbers.
Enforcement is a murky matter. On Wednesday, GOP legislative leadership said Evers’ latest order is unenforceable because it would not pass Supreme Court ruling muster.
Manley said there is a “huge gray area.”
“Nobody wants to break the law, but this is an order that I think is clearly unlawful,” he said. “Businesses have to make up their own mind whether they run the risk of, in our view, an unlawful order against the risk of the $500 forfeiture associated with this order.”
Evers pointed to the $50 million in federal funding he announced this week for small business grants. While Hillmer said grants are helpful, many restaurants may be out of business before they get through the paperwork.
“Our operators are doing everything in their power to stay solvent and stay open,” the Restaurant Association president said. “But as the hits continue to come, it’s becoming more difficult for our operators.”