Evers casts doubt on tavern league ‘soft reopening’ request

Gov. Tony Evers says bars and restaurants will most likely not be allowed to start reopening at the beginning of May, dimming a request from the Tavern League of Wisconsin. 

“It will be discussed, but at the end of the day, May 1st, I feel relatively confident that would be a tough row to hoe,” Evers said yesterday during a Department of Health Services briefing. 

As frustration with the extended stay-at-home order builds in the state’s business community, the Tavern League of Wisconsin requested a “soft reopening” of bars, restaurants and supper clubs on May 1. 

“If we are facing no business until May 26, we’re going to see a lot of our members just leave their business like an abandoned car,” said Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League. “You can’t go 70 days without substantial income and expect to survive.” 

But the guv’s newly announced “Badger Bounce Back” plan doesn’t allow bars and restaurants to reopen until after certain criteria on testing, tracing, treatment and case numbers have been met. 

“There is a phase in which bars and restaurants are specifically identified, and we aren’t even to Phase One or Phase Two,” Evers said. “We look forward to the day of making that happen.” 

The Tavern League’s request comes amid protests in the state and around the country against various stay-at-home orders. Here in Wisconsin, the owner of Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub in Wauwatosa says he won’t follow the extension and plans to reopen April 24, when the order was originally set to end. 

Stenger says he’s unsure if other businesses will follow that example but stressed that “these are very difficult times” for small business operators. 

“When you’re in a desperate situation, you often do desperate things,” he told WisBusiness.com. 

But the Tavern League isn’t telling member companies to ignore the order. 

“This distracts from the bigger issue here, to find a workable long-term solution. That’s the most important aspect,” Stenger said. “The fact that we don’t like something doesn’t mean we won’t follow it. We can voice opposition, but we’re not going to advise people not to follow it.” 

Under the Tavern League’s proposed soft reopening, all workers would be required to wear masks and gloves, and tables would be set 6 feet apart. Tables would be restricted to six people each, and on-premise capacities would be limited to 50 percent. All salad bars, paper menus and table condiments would be removed. 

Meanwhile, the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin is calling on Evers to create a bipartisan commission tasked with making a plan for opening up the state’s economy before May 26. This group includes the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, the Association of Wisconsin Tourism Attractions, Destinations Wisconsin and other organizations. 

“The future of our state businesses, many of whom will not survive this blind extension of the safer-at-home order, need hope that Wisconsin has a plan to reopen,” the groups wrote in a statement. 

They’re calling for the commission to be created by next week and to submit recommendations to the governor by the week of April 27. 

“The Governor should be pursuing every option available to aggressively try to open safely before May 26,” they wrote. “With a solid plan we believe some areas of the state could be open by May 1.” 

NFIB Wisconsin State Director Bill Smith endorses the idea of a committee made up of industry leaders coming up with specific plans for how to reopen the economy, starting with certain businesses. He says Evers’ extension of the stay-at-home order failed to “put a light at the end of the tunnel” for small business leaders desperate for some hope. 

“A lot of small business owners were looking for hope, for optimism, for a plan,” Smith said. “Not so much when, but how are we going to proceed. … The governor needs to start talking about that for the benefit of the small business community.” 

Stenger says the Tavern League has been in talks with the administration on its soft reopening request, but decided to make the request public to “see if that can move the needle at all.” 

“Let’s find a smart, responsible solution that will provide some hope that these businesses can survive this,” Stenger said. 

The Wisconsin Technology Council is advocating that the guv consider national statistical models from the University of Texas and University of Washington, one of which predicts with 81 percent likelihood that the state’s peak of cases will pass by May 2. 

“The combination of these models suggests there should be weekly reviews to determine how the “Badger Bounce Back” is monitored and implemented over time,” said Tech Council President Tom Still in a memo. 

Still supports Evers’ statements about relying on science in decision making, and calls for a transparent “scorecard” to help people know when recovery metrics are being met. Plus he said the guv should “depending on the data, consider lifting the order at different speeds in certain counties or regions.” 

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is criticizing the extension, with the group’s President and CEO Kurt Bauer recently calling for a phased restart of the economy across certain geographic areas. 

“Unfortunately, the governor chose to ignore thousands of businesses, workers and their families who were looking for even the slightest glimmer of hope that the economy could reopen,” he said in a statement. 

In the DHS briefing, Evers conceded the state may consider the notion of a regional sector-based approach, but dismissed the idea that any Wisconsin county has no cases. 

Bauer also questions the legal authority of the administration to extend the order. And Republican lawmakers have said they’ll challenge the extension in the state Supreme Court. 

See more on the Badger Bounce Back plan: http://content.govdelivery.com/attachments/WIGOV/2020/04/20/file_attachments/1431305/Badger%20Bounce%20Back%20PlanFINAL.pdf 

See Bauer’s recent comments on UpFront: http://www.wispolitics.com/2020/upfront-wmcs-bauer-calls-for-regional-sector-based-approach-to-reopening-economy/ 

–By Alex Moe