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Bar and restaurant owners outside Dane County deal with uncertainty after stay-at-home order tossed by court

Bar and restaurant owners outside Dane County deal with uncertainty after stay-at-home order tossed by court

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It was an anniversary gift that came a day late.

Angie and Mike Wirth couldn’t really celebrate the four-year anniversary of their Blanchardville bar, the Cork Down Saloon, on Tuesday because they’d laid off their eight part-time bartenders and were running the tavern by themselves, offering takeout since Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order went into effect in March to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, Wednesday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ order, which had restricted restaurants and bars to offering takeout and delivery.

Immediately, Public Health Madison and Dane County used its authority to issue a local order, keeping in place the main elements of the stay-at-home order including rules for county restaurants. But other counties haven’t been as clear, prompting some bars and restaurants to reopen immediately while others plan to wait until after May 26, when the state’s order was set to expire.

Angie Wirth

Cork Down Saloon co-owner Angie Wirth walks through the outdoor patio of the Blanchardville bar and restaurant, which she hopes will soon again be a gathering spot for patrons.

The Cork Down is in Lafayette County, which didn’t issue a local order. So, with the blessing of the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the Wirths opened their bar Thursday for lunch, after spacing tables and bar stools 6 feet apart.

Angie Wirth said the court decision was met with relief, but a little fear because they “weren’t ready for it to abruptly happen that way.”

“We’ve been open this whole time doing carryouts and we stocked up the beer, so we didn’t really have any issues with that,” she said. “It was just getting the facility ready to have people back in it again.”

Best practices

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association is advising members to follow guidance from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and its own Wisconsin Restaurant Promise, which recommends health checks of staff before their shifts, providing handwashing or sanitizing stations and configuring seating areas to allow for proper social distancing.

WEDC recommends employees wear face coverings; the WRA does not, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early April began recommending people wear face coverings when in public.

The WRA says restaurants still shouldn’t allow buffets, salad bars or other self-serve options, but that rules for restaurants in more rural parts of the state should be “less restrictive” than for those in Milwaukee, Green Bay and other places that have seen outbreaks, president and CEO Kristine Hillmer said.

‘One shot’

A smooth reopening is key for restaurants, Hillmer said.

“The one fear that they have is that they really have one shot to get this right,” Hillmer said of restaurants choosing to reopen. If there’s an outbreak in their areas and they have to close again, reopening a second time could be impossible, she said.

A spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A, which has locations in Waukesha County, where officials don’t plan to issue a local “safer at home” order, said the chain’s restaurants are remaining closed, except for delivery, pickup and drive-thru services.

A spokesman for Prairie du Sac-based Culver’s said the company has advised franchisees “not to re-open their dining areas until they feel they are ready to do so,” and then only in accordance with recommendations from the company and health officials.

Jason Westhoff, president of Menomonee Falls-based Cousins Subs, said he would have liked to see the Supreme Court stay its order for six days so Evers and the Republican-run state Legislature could come up with guidelines for how to open restaurants.

“We don’t have any guidance at all about anything at this point, ” Westhoff said.

He figures only about 15 to 20 of Cousins stores in Wisconsin are in areas where they could open, but none will do so before Saturday. Individual store openings will ultimately be up to the franchisees, he said.

Cautiously reopening

In Richland County, where the county has not issued a local ‘safer at home’ order, bars and restaurants began to reopen Thursday.

The Press Box in downtown Richland Center has been doing carryout orders for the past two months, but the bar opened its doors to customers at 11 a.m. Thursday. Just two people were seated at the bar and were about 6 feet apart, even though they were friends.

“We missed it,” John Winger said of sitting at a bar, as he nursed a can of Budweiser. “We were crying the whole time.”

Max Gundlach, who has owned the downtown bar for 25 years and has nine employees, was busy preparing chicken tacos in the kitchen Thursday for the lunch crowd and planned to keep the bar open until late Thursday night and even into Friday morning if there were enough customers.

A sign in the front door asked customers to “social distance.”

A few blocks away at Richland Family Restaurant, the dining room was open for lunch on Thursday but only one table had customers. Dino Bajrami has owned the business for three years and said he’s hoping for more business on Friday but will make sure diners are not seated at adjacent tables and booths.

Neither Bajrami nor his employees wore masks on Thursday and neither did the three customers who munched on wraps, French fries and hamburgers.

Owners and employees of businesses in Jefferson and Dodge counties reacted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to lift Gov. Tony Evers' safer-at-home order before the May 26 expiration date.

One of those diners was Doug Martyniuk, 60, who is a safety consultant specializing in the transportation industry.

“I’m concerned that we contain this thing so it’s not spreading all over but we still have to live,” Martyniuk said. “We can’t hide under a rock. Places have to survive. I’m glad he’s open. I’m going stir crazy working from home.”

Waiting game

Maria Peterson, who with her husband, Michael, has run MP’s Town Tap in Columbus for four years, said because their bar is in Columbia County they’re allowed to open. She’s choosing not to, she said, because opening now will only prolong the spread of the virus.

Peterson said she intends to keep the bar closed for a couple more weeks “to watch the numbers,” referring to the number of COVID-19 cases reported in Wisconsin.

“I’m just looking out for the safety of my customers and my employees,” Peterson said.

Richard Skaife, who’s owned Hi Point Steakhouse in Ridgeway for five years, said he’s waiting for more guidelines from Iowa County or the state.

Hi Point has been offering takeout and delivery seven days a week, and while he’s seen about a 50 percent drop off from normal business, he said he’s adapting.

“Like last week, Mother’s Day week, biggest week of the year, was down significantly,” Skaife said. “But you got to improvise, adapt and overcome.”

Dane County

Jose Luis “Pepe” Granados, a partner in Palette Bar & Grill and both Eno Vino restaurants, plans to open all his restaurants as soon as he’s allowed.

“We have them ready with the social distancing rules,” Granados said. “We just need the green light and we will open that day or the next.”

Hawk Sullivan, who owns Hawk’s Bar & Grill on State Street and three area bars, said he’s not interested in opening any of his places until health officials allow bars and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, at least.

“Opening with a 25% capacity doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Bartenders wouldn’t make anything. It’s not really fair to them. I think mid-June is what it’s looking like.”

Caitlin Suemnicht, the chief operating officer of Food Fight restaurant group, which operates 20 restaurants, all in Dane County, said her company is relieved that Public Health Madison and Dane County is backing up Evers’ “safer at home” order.

She said Food Fight has been working on plans for reopening its restaurants, but its “highest priority” is the safety of its employees and customers.

“Social distancing of employees and customers, mask use, capacity control, cleanliness, and sanitation are our big discussion points right now in our planning meetings,” she said. “We are using this time wisely to make sure we are ready to open when it’s safe for us to do so.”

State Journal reporter Barry Adams contributed to this report.

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