Hospitality industry reacts to Dane County’s new capacity restrictions

Wisconsin Restaurant Association

After a successful run at keeping down daily confirmed cases and making its way through its reopening plan, Dane County is now having to place new restrictions on businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19 just before the holiday weekend.

The new order takes effect this morning at 8 a.m. and will remain in place for at least a month. 

“For the past week, Dane County has seen a sustained, high number of cases,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County. “After consultation with our contact tracing team, gatherings and visits to bars and restaurants continue to be implicated in interviews with cases.”

The changes include: 10 people or fewer at indoor gatherings; 25 or fewer at outdoor gatherings; indoor dining capacity at restaurants reduced to 25 percent of approved seating capacity levels; bars may provide takeout, but no indoor dining; bars and restaurants are permitted to provide outdoor seating with physical distancing; and group fitness classes are no subject to mass gathering limits listed above

“Responsible businesses should double down on efforts to protect patrons and workers, including not only providing face coverings for workers as required, but also by encouraging patrons to use face coverings as well,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in a release.

Destination Madison supports the new public health measures and continues to urge visitors and residents to take appropriate health and safety precautions, especially over the Fourth of July weekend, when out in the community visiting local small businesses.

“It is unfortunate that these steps are necessary as so many area businesses were beginning to re-open to the public, but we understand the necessity to do so,” said Deb Archer, president and CEO of Destination Madison. 

Wisconsin Restaurant Association Vice President Susan Quam said she hopes this will calm down as quickly as possible as she fears customers will leave the county for group events such as weddings.

“Unfortunately that is going to be the economic side of this change,” she said. 

Quam said moving back to 25 percent capacity is a rug pulled out from under restaurants and warned that this will be a financial hit to operators. 

“At the 25 percent level we were at before, many people couldn’t open because they said, ‘at 25 percent, we’d lose money,” she said.  “So they geared up and got ready and waited until it went to 50 percent and then they opened. And they made investments in order to open their restaurants up. They were only open at 50 percent for a little while, and the rug has been pulled out from under them.”

The order notes that bars are of particular concern. People mix, talk louder to communicate (spreading droplets further), and then can’t easily provide contact information for those they were in close contact with. 

Quam said the small group within the 20-29 age population going to the bars downtown that led to the spike in cases are not the same people who are visiting restaurants. 

“That’s the hard part for everyone to have to deal with,” she said. While the WRA “understands” the health department’s decision, “we really do think that restaurants could remain open at 50 percent and do so safely and provide a safe environment and not be part of the spread.”

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi blames ignored public health guidelines for the rapid spread of the virus in the county. He warns that if people don’t follow physical distancing guidelines, there could be stricter orders put in place.

“We need everyone to take this seriously and adhere to the guidelines and recommendations that are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19 or we will face the very real possibility of having to resort to even stricter guidelines,” Parisi said.

Caitlin Suemnicht, chief operating officer of Food Fight Restaurant Group said the new order restricting capacity “does not really affect Food Fight restaurants.”

“It will only impact very large restaurants with a lot of square footage and high capacities, which we don’t have,” she said. That’s because the physical distancing rule that is included in the order only allows restaurants to operate at 25 percent capacity anyways because they are small to medium sized. 

Food Fight is asking for a mask requirement in public places for Dane County to protect everyone and keep the cases down, Suemnicht said. 

“That is important to us and we’d like to see that happen as soon as possible,” she said. “Currently, we request that our customers wear masks anytime they are not seated at a table, but it would be nice to have officials and Public Health back us up.”

From June 13 through June 26, 614 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Dane County.

About half of the cases were between the ages of 18 and 25. Public Health Madison & Dane County noted that 45 percent of the cases interviewed reported attending a gathering or party with people outside of their household. 

According to the public health department, 28 percent of cases were associated with a cluster: 132 cases from bars, 14 from workplaces, 11 from congregate facilities, such as long term care facilities and jails, three from daycares or preschools and 12 from “other” clusters. 

“We need individuals and businesses alike to take this public health threat seriously and know we are enforcing these rules,” said Rhodes-Conway. “To our younger population, I want to remind you that free testing is available at Alliant Energy Center. Make a plan and go get tested if you may have been exposed.”

Fifty-four percent of cases were tested at the community test site at Alliant Energy Center.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association remains in contact with local public health offices statewide trying to “mediate the situation.”

“Hospitality drives a lot of business in Dane County, and without hospitality being able to operate, there’s a lot of revenue that’s not coming in and it’s literally leaving the county,” Quam said. “We’re going to have to have those frank conversations…  and advocating what’s going to be done to help these businesses stay afloat, because we obviously don’t need vacant buildings and vacant storefronts and no businesses hiring people in the county.”

-By Stephanie Hoff