Wisconsin Restaurants Hope More Flexibility Is On the State's Menu

May 1, 2020

Business groups are urging state lawmakers to support a private sector proposal aimed at a quicker loosening of restrictions for some Wisconsin businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Tony Evers wants his safer-at-home order to stay into effect until at least May 26. But Thursday, a Republican-controlled legislative committee heard seven hours of testimony from firms and organizations that back a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) plan that could allow more business openings next week.

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One focus is on the restaurant and tavern industries. Chris Marsicano of the Tavern League of Wisconsin co-owns the Village Supper Club in Delavan. He says his economic pain started on St. Patrick's Day, which was when the state first halted eating at restaurants.

"We had the corned beef on, the cabbage was cooking, and all of a sudden we got a three-hour notice to say, it's over. Turn your lights off. Shut your doors," Marsicano told lawmakers.

Marsicano says he still offers take-out food two nights a week, but that's not enough revenue for his restaurant. He says the same goes for other dining establishments. But he says taverns that don't sell food have it even worse.

Kristine Hillmer of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association says her group has developed the Wisconsin Restaurant Promise — voluntary cleaning and social distancing guidelines that she says will keep eateries safe for workers and guests.  "And also instill a sense of confidence for customers who do want to go out and eat, that our restaurants are doing this, this, this, this, this,” Hillmer said.

But Democrats on the legislative committee repeatedly raised questions about worker safety at reopened facilities, and whether employees who refuse to come back right away would lose unemployment insurance. State Rep. Christine Sinicki of Milwaukee says many of her business constituents aren't ready to reopen, including those in Cudahy.

"A lot of my businesses still support the governor's plan because they realize if we open too quickly, without a plan, we're just going to end up in the same situation this fall,” Sinicki said.

Sinicki also says WMC’s plan to open regions of Wisconsin faster if they haven't had many COVID problems won't work because travelers could bring in the coronavirus. 

Several legislators who took part in Thursday's hearing were at the State Capitol, while others took part virtually.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The legislative committee took no action on the WMC proposal. But members repeatedly asked for bipartisan discussions on how to help Wisconsin businesses.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Supreme Court could weigh in soon on a GOP-led challenge to Evers’ safer-at-home program.

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