Milwaukee, Waukesha Bars And Restaurants Face Different COVID-19 Rules

May 26, 2020

COVID-19 restrictions for businesses continue to differ across southeastern Wisconsin, depending on where the companies are located. Some communities are only offering recommendations for reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Other cities have kept orders.

Some of the greatest remaining differences are for the bar and restaurant industry.

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Some of the establishments have had a brush with fame, like Club 400 in Waukesha. Seventy years ago, the father of renowned guitarist Les Paul owned the place. Customers still sit along a guitar-shaped bar. Photos of Paul are on the walls. 

Current owner James Lindenberg says things went well financially early this year, and though not an Irish pub, Lindenberg says the tavern was getting ready for a strong St. Patrick's Day.

"You've got your keg of green beer, which is traditional Wisconsin. You've got a lot of different Irish whiskeys that you're buying. You've got Shamrock Shots that we purchased. Tippy Cow, made in Wisconsin,” Lindenberg said.

Customers sit at the guitar-shaped bar in Waukesha's Club 400.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

But on March 17, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered all taverns in the state to close inside service to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Club 400 shut down for nearly two months, what Lindenberg calls a "scary time." Though the bar got some federal financial aid, many of the 12 workers had hours cut. Some went on unemployment.

Then, two weeks ago, the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the state's extension of the governor's safer-at-home plan. In some locations, like Waukesha, many bars opened. Lindenberg says it only took him about a day to open Club 400.

"Some of the people in Waukesha were definitely eager to get out and see each other and get a little bit back to normal," Lindenberg said.

Frequent customer Doug Quinlan says he's glad to be able to come sit and have a beer. He says he's not too worried about catching COVID-19 because the tavern is cleaning more surfaces. Plus, Quinlan says he's healthy and believes the other regulars are too.

"I'm kind of comfortable with who's here. It's a risk you take, but I always do that anyway. Just goin' out to the bar is a risk,” Quinlan said.

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Following the state Supreme Court ruling, Waukesha and surrounding Waukesha County — a Republican stronghold — did not put on any local safer-at-home orders, just recommendations. Several other counties and cities temporarily issued restrictions, then pulled back. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul released an opinion supporting the local powers. The Democrat defends his move.

"Having local orders make sure there are reasonable rules in place that protect people's health but also help us move toward reopening the economy in a fashion that's safe,” Kaul told WUWM.

Customers gather on May 22 inside the Milwaukee Brat House in Shorewood.
Credit Maayan Silver

In Racine, where former Democratic state lawmaker Cory Mason is mayor, the first phase of business reopening starts this week. But Mason promises to publicly acknowledge the bad and good actors.

Milwaukee, heavily Democratic, plans to keep on its local restrictions at least through May 28, perhaps longer.

"We know that we still have a problem here. When you've got 4,300 people who have tested positive, I can't ignore that. I simply can't ignore that,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett explained on May 20.

The Milwaukee Health Department reported during Memorial Day weekend that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city now tops 4,900, with more than 170 deaths.

This week, we also may learn the fate of a federal lawsuit that was filed against local safer-at-home orders in Wisconsin. The case is about more than bars and restaurants. It argues the orders violate the rights to freely assemble, to exercise religion, and amount to excessive government intervention. Evers' lawyer predicts the case will go nowhere.

Nonetheless, some bar and restaurant owners in Milwaukee are upset with Barrett, especially those closer to the borders with Milwaukee County suburbs, where many establishments have opened with customer limits.

Others are taking a calmer approach. 

Miss Katie's Diner in Milwaukee is open for carry-out only.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The longtime bar and restaurant Miss Katie's Diner, near Marquette University, still offers take-out service.  But the diner says revenues for the first three months of this year plunged 75% due to the coronavirus pandemic. Manager Peter Picciurro says the diner has gotten by on some federal aid and past savings. Picciuro says when he fully reopens, he'll be counting on customer loyalty.

"The good people that have been coming here for 35 years, I think they'll be back. They're going to be a little cautious and I don't blame them," PIcciuro told WUWM.

This photo hangs from the ceiling inside Miss Katie's Diner.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach / Miss Katie's Diner

Picciuro and many other Milwaukee business owners were also counting on a boost from the Democratic National Convention, which is now delayed until mid-August. But the convention may only take place as a one-day event or even just a virtual gathering.  

Still, Picciuro says he hopes likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden comes by sometime this summer or fall. Picciuro extends the same invitation to President Donald Trump, who visited as a candidate in 2016. Miss Katie's has about a 25-year history of attracting national political figures, a tradition threatened this year by COVID-19. 

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