Saturday, October 10, 2020

Yes, Evers' restrictions might limit eateries. But stopping COVID-19 is the best way to keep them alive

As Wisconsin continues to deal with record cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the gerrymandered GOP State Legislature decides that paying lawyers and staying on a paid vacation are bigger priorities, Governor Evers felt like he had to do something. So he put in an executive order this week putting new restrictions in place to try to stop the spread of this disease.

One major part of Governor Evers' new executive order taking steps against coronavirus deals with a limiting of capacity for a number of businesses that serve customers indoors.
a. Public gatherings are limited to no more than 25% of the occupancy limits for the room or building, as established by the local municipality.

b. For indoor spaces without an occupancy limit for the room or building that is established by the local municipality, such as a private residence, public gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people.
Worth noting, this is for indoor capacity. Outside dining is fine...for as long as we are able to dine outdoors.

But some cities in Wisconsin had already taken measures to limit COVID exposure, and were confused as to whether the new rules were getting in the way of efforts that had already been going on for months. For example, the City of Milwaukee had been working with restuaurants in approving safety plans you can see the list here), and claimed that their rules not only worked better than the statewide standards that Evers put in place, but also were more restrictive, even without the capacity limits.

In a story that ran this week on Channel 58 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's lobbying group that "represents" the food service industry cited Milwaukee's efforts to claim the new rules are unfair.
“I think it’s safe to say that right now the city of Milwaukee restaurants are feeling blindsided,” said Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

As of Friday, Oct.2, 850 Milwaukee restaurant safety plans were already submitted to the city with more than 315 approved.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association says the new order is devastating.

“All the work that Milwaukee restaurants have done to keep people safe and their doors open are for naught,” added Hillmer.
Except that Evers recognized that businesses need additional support to go with the additional restrictions, and announced $50 million in new CARES aid that will go out to up to 10,000 small businesses in November. This lumps in all businesses that have revenues of $1 million or less, but much of it is likely to go to the state's restuarants and bars. And it's going to be needed, as many of these businesses were having depressed levels of business in the COVID World, even before the new restrictions were put in place.

An example of the dire situation was shown in another story out of Madison this week, as a Capitol Square restaurant that used to be able to practically print money from being so consistently crowded is now having to do fundraisers for the few employees oit has left.
By focusing mainly on carryout and delivery for the past seven months, the Old Fashioned, one of Madison’s busiest, most popular restaurants, has gone from 108 employees to 24.

And, as of Thursday, owners Marcia Castro and Tami Lax are appealing to the restaurant’s fans with a GoFundMe page they say will help them pay their remaining employees.
The Old Fashioned previously did so much business that it's not able to qualify under Governor Evers’ recent release of $50 million for firms that have less than $1 million in revenue a year, so that option isn’t there. It did get funds through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but Castro says in the article that PPP only got them through the early Summer.

Now that the pandemic is dragging through its 7th month with little hope for help from DC in the coming weeks, and Winter looming with limited capacity and demand for indoor dining, the owners of the Old Fashioned felt they had no other choice but to try the GoFundMe to keep their employees from suffering.
The women say the other reason they’re doing it now is because restaurants aren’t going to be seeing any federal coronavirus relief soon. President Donald Trump shut down additional aid discussions Tuesday until after the Nov. 3 election (although now the aid discussions are now back on…we think).

Lax said they’ve “aggressively tried to keep as many people employed as possible, but ultimately, (we) had to lay off an awful lot of people.”

She said they’ve had to reduce the hours of other workers, which is difficult because when they aren’t working full time, they don’t qualify for health insurance. Lax said she and Castro stopped taking income as soon as COVID-19 restrictions were issued, and started using their personal money as backup.
Quick side note – this is why Medicare for All and paid sick leave is a good thing for business, because they don’t have to choose between taking on these extra costs, or leaving their employees and customers vulnerable because they don’t.

As bad as it is in Madison, it’s likely worse in Green Bay these days, where there aren’t fans going to Packer games and Brown County is the COVID Capital of the state. The Green Bay Press-Gazette talked to restaurant owners that noted the combination of COVID and no Packers have created a perfect storm of financial struggles.
Bill Tressler, owner of Hinterland Brewery in Ashwaubenon, called it the perfect disaster scenario.

"Until everybody gets on the same game plan and we get it under control at least, we are going to continue to have these spikes," Tressler said. "I think we all have to take the long view on this one and shorten the time period it takes to get past this. The problem is, these are people’s livelihoods; trying to pay their bills, trying to keep people on the payroll."
They're also not drinking and eating here.

That Press-Gazette article also quotes Jess Miller, who owns several restaurants in Titletown, including The Bar franchise. Miller grumbles about the new 25% capacity limits, but also notes that there aren’t people going in to his places anyway.
Distancing inside the restaurants unfortunately is easy because of the small number of customers, Miller said. For the most part, customers have been mindful of distancing and mask-wearing requirements….

Curbside business is "still stronger than it was a year ago, but not to the levels in April," Miller said. "You don’t get any beverage sales out of them, which is where your better margins are. Unfortunately, people don’t tend to tip the staff. A lot of people don’t think of that on takeout."
And remember that Channel 58 story about how the new restrictions were going to close all these restuarants? WRA's CEO gives away the real situation at the end of that piece.
Before the order, Hillmer said 37-percent of restaurants were expected to close within six months, but now she expects half of restaurants to go under if there’s no additional help.
So most of these businesses were already endangered because of reduced business due to consumers already practicing social and physical distancing. And the "no additional help" quote is dishonest, because of the CARES aid that Evers announced this week, along with $15 million for live music venues, $20 million for hotels and motels (many of whom have restaurants and bars), and $20 million for movie theatres and arts organizations. That should help these businesses get through a long winter, and if people work to try to lessen the chances of COVID-19 spreading by staying home, then perhaps we can get to a place where more people want to go out.

There is no good answer to the awful situation that Wisconsin food and drinking establishments are in these days, because as long as COVID-19 and colder weather exists in our state, they are going to be hurting. So the bottom line to me is that if we don't work to crush COVID-19, Wisconsin restaurants will continue to close regardless of how many or few restrictions there are on operations.

So let's care about that first, and subsidize the businesses to compensate them for the losses that will result from having to reduce capacity and/or shut down. Hopefully, we then can have our food service economy and customer demand be on stronger footing in a few months with COVID being less pervasive than the mess that we are stumbling through today.

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