'We're not surviving': Business owners worry about operating at 25% capacity; medical groups support Evers' efforts

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BROOKFIELD, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Starting on Thursday, Oct. 8, many Wisconsin businesses will be required to operate at a quarter of their building’s capacity. The move has the support of medical groups, but business owners say it misses the mark.

Gov. Tony Evers announced that beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday, stores, restaurants, bars and other businesses with indoor spaces will be limited to 25 percent occupancy. He directed the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to issue that mandate, which is in effect until Nov. 6. 

Dave Dayler and Jennine Paoli, the owners of Saloon on Calhoun in Brookfield, said the move is just the latest blow to business owners.

"We have had zero COVID cases reported from here or through here. So what did we do to suddenly be brought to a mandatory 25 percent capacity? We're not surviving," Dayler said.

Paoli said they're grateful they've been able to utilize their patio space, but they worry about the changing weather and the day when that’s no longer possible, especially with the new restrictions in place past their busy season in October and Halloween.

"Our bills are still 100 percent. Our taxes are still 100 percent. Our rent is 100 percent. Our employees still want all of their money, and if we get 25 percent in, that's a 75 percent guarantee of failure," Dayler said. "Three weeks might as well be three years for many people. This is a day-by-day, we-hope-we-can-make-it-through-the-day type of industry."

Steve Baas, senior vice president for governmental affairs for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, said Evers' administration is failing to recognize the work and money business owners have already put in to make their establishments safe.

"Governor Evers' order was well-intentioned but poorly thought out. Unfortunately, it penalizes the people who have taken some of the most stringent health and safety precautions in the entire economy: restaurants and bars," Baas said. "I would argue that the safety plans for restaurants, bars and schools are more complicated and more comprehensive than any safety plan outside of hospitals'."

He said the restaurant industry is not to blame for the worsening virus conditions in Wisconsin.

However, the Wisconsin Medical Society disputes that.

"This is a really complex issue in how this affects people's lives and their livelihoods, but we do know from public health surveillance data -- bars and restaurants is really ... where the spread happens," said Jerry Halverson, chair of the board of directors for the Wisconsin Medical Society.

The society is supportive of Evers' order, emphasizing that it's a necessary step in getting COVID-19 under control.

"We're at a one-size-fits-all (approach) because we've tried the other way and this where we're at. We're at this huge spike. We're worst in the nation," said Halverson, who is also the chief medical officer for Rogers Behavioral Health in Oconomowoc.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city attorney's office is reviewing whether Evers' order applies to Milwaukee. He wants to have a conversation with state leaders in hopes of trying to get more leniency and flexibility for Milwaukee business owners.

"The major outbreaks we're seeing in Wisconsin are basically in the Fox River Valley and in the northeastern part of the state, and so it makes a lot of sense to take this dramatic move I think for many parts of the state. Here in Milwaukee, we've actually gotten things under control because we took steps very early on. We took serious steps. I want to see whether we're able to have some flexibility given the fact that we have things more under control here," Barrett said.

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