I’m writing this after closing down the Minocqua Brewing Company, my brewpub, for the season. Here is my testimonial to what can happen to a small business under failed federal and state leadership.
I have never closed the brewpub during the off-season before, and MBC was one of the mainstays of entertainment and culture in this tourist town during the off-season when other businesses closed up.
But everybody’s business model changed on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, when we were abruptly told to close our doors due to COVID-19’s rapid spread in Wisconsin. We had a sold-out beer pairing dinner that night.
We raced and changed our entire restaurant in a week to deliver gourmet sandwiches from a newly-created online menu, a niche we hoped could keep the money flowing until the pandemic was under control.
We applied for and received a PPP loan thanks to the bipartisan CARES Act, which saved so many businesses at that time and kept Americans afloat with boosted unemployment benefits.
Those two months, although painful because we all stayed at home most of the time, it felt like America was on the same team. We all worked together to “flatten the curve” so hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed. I even created a fundraiser called “#customerx” that raised approximately $15,000 to pay local restaurants to deliver lunch to essential workers and the increased ranks of the food insecure.
I loved how our community came together at that time to help each other.
Then summer started approaching, and businesses understandably started freaking out about not being able to open, because we all make the lion’s share of our revenue up north during the summer tourist season. This is when Trump’s rhetoric started tearing our community apart. Even while COVID-19 cases and deaths were still growing throughout the nation, he told Americans they had a choice: accept the rampant spread of the coronavirus throughout our towns or watch our economy die and go broke.
Our Republican-controlled Legislature spinelessly morphed into the “Party of Trump” in a craven attempt to hold onto power during election season. GOP lawmakers sued our governor to open up Wisconsin without a plan, and Wisconsin’s cases exploded by late July, putting our state on a list that couldn’t go to other states without quarantining first.
Wisconsin and my little town of Minocqua were divided into two camps that hated each other’s viewpoints even though we had embraced each other as a community just weeks before.
What a shame.
My business limped along, only serving food and drink outside, which was far less risky than serving indoors, but we only made about one-third of what we typically make in a normal summer.
You can’t make your economy healthy without controlling the pandemic. And so many countries have already bounced back because they’ve gotten the pandemic under control, which is proof that our weak economy is a direct result of disastrous leadership from Trump and our state Republican Legislature, including Rob Swearingen, the representative I’m challenging this November.
As of Sept. 14, the COVID-19 testing positive rate in Wisconsin was 19.7%. Experts suggest we are way above the threshold to open schools safely, which convinced me that indoor dining is still unsafe — thus my decision to close the restaurant for the season. We were able to save enough money to keep our building maintained in order to reopen healthily next summer, but I’m heartbroken because I have to let go of my wonderful staff in the interim.
My story is no different than many others, but the reality of this situation — of these failures of leadership and even basic compassion — convinced me to run for office and try to do something to help my community and my state.
Small businesses everywhere, and my neighbors up north in particular, have been unnecessarily hurt by politicians who don’t care about us, but only care about their own power and getting reelected. This rampant refusal to govern by Trump and Wisconsin’s Republicans has hurt us long enough.
Kirk Bangstad owns the Minocqua Brewing Company and is the Democratic candidate for Wisconsin's 34th Assembly District.
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