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Milwaukee Restaurants Have Been Left By Themselves Since Reopening Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Scott Olson
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Since reopening Wisconsin restaurants, limited state and city regulations have meant restaurants are on their own to decide how they reopen and if they close due to coronavirus concerns.

Restaurants have had the go-ahead from the city of Milwaukee to open dine-in services and operate with safety and capacity limits for over a month, but many are still struggling. Some decide to close temporarily if any coronavirus cases arise amongst workers, but there’s actually no strict protocols to follow.

As restaurants research and adapt best new operation practices largely on their own, culinary historian and contributor Kyle Cherek says this lack of top-down instruction has caused a significant drop in public trust. 

On June 4, Mayor Tom Barrett announced that bars and restaurants could reopen the following day with occupancy capacities and sanitation requirements. In doing so, he asked business owners to make smart decisions.

Cherek says this guidance from the mayor was not specific enough and lacked concrete steps to allow business owners to make these decisions. “You are talking about an industry, hospitality, where the very nature of it is close interactions between people,” he says. He also criticized the timing of the announcement as properly reopening a restaurant takes more than a day.

Since the announcement, Milwaukee’s health department has put out a checklist for restaurants to complete as they reopen, but Cherek wants government leadership at all levels to go further to increase public trust. Because when business owners don’t make smart decisions, public trust in all restaurants is eroded.

One case Cherek points to is The Kiltie Drive-In in Oconomowoc, which has been accused by workers of staying open despite five employees contracting coronavirus.

"The insanity just blows my mind that a restaurant could operate with five going cases and there’s no mechanism to let the public know. It’s only an anonymous tip by somebody who works there who doesn’t want to go back for their own safety, and the restaurant is allowed to continue being open," says Cherek.

Lack of public trust means less business and that could force many local restaurants to close for good and in doing so, change the landscape of Milwaukee.

“Restaurants are specific to place. They create neighborhoods, they create communities, they create locations, they create cities. That’s what they’ve always, always, always been, and the history of restaurants is about placemaking,” he says.

“What’s happening now is a really profound soul death in American food and I hate to think about what’s on the other side, but the tragedy for me is that this doesn’t have to happen,” says Cherek.  

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Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.