With each passing day, the pressure builds. So does the anguish and, for some, the anger.
The economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is leading to increasing calls for the lifting of business closures and stay-at-home orders.
Nearly half a million Wisconsin residents — 16% of the available workers in the state — have sought unemployment benefits. Mortgage, rent and car payments are due. Groceries are not free. Paying taxes hasn’t suddenly become optional.
Small businesses that took decades to build are on the brink of failing.
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We can’t wait any longer to reopen the economy, many people say. But how? And when? And can we do it without further spreading a virus that has already sickened and/or killed thousands of our fellow citizens? And who decides?
Where the COVID-19-related shutdown was swift and blunt, emerging from it is proving incredibly complex and nuanced, with economics, politics, health, life and death all having a role in what, if it was a play, would be a tragedy.
“Just as it was a rather violent beginning to the stay at home procedures, the emergence or reversal of all that is much more complicated,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for personal finance site Bankrate.com.
“It’s basically a dance that is occurring among stakeholders, including epidemiologists, political leaders, business leaders, workers and consumers,” he said. “Everybody has a stake and, to some degree, everybody has a say.”
There could be a bit more clarity in the coming days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide whether to keep in place Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order. Republican lawmakers contend Evers’ restrictions — which keep much of state shut down until May 26 — go too far.
“The first order of business to get out of a hole is to stop digging,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which favors a gradual return to normal business.
Even then, things will likely proceed slowly.
“If safer at home were lifted tomorrow, the pump isn’t going to flow,” Sheehy said. “It has to be primed.”
That’s because employers and consumers alike are trying to figure out what a new normal will look like and whether it is safe to return to public places. If a business reopens, will its suppliers be ready? Will customers come?
“It’s a very tricky thing that you have to decide,” said Abdur Chowdhury, professor emeritus of economics at Marquette University and former chief economist of the United Nations Economic Commission. “You have to walk a very fine line here. You want to reopen the economy but … not in such a way that it increases the number of cases.
“When everything is said and done … you will see many businesses, particularly small businesses, going under.”
Asymptomatic but contagious patron is restaurant nightmare
Some restaurateurs are wary of opening too soon, for health and economic reasons.
Dan Jacobs, co-owner of Dandan in the Third Ward and other restaurants, thinks much more testing of the public for the coronavirus must be done and contact tracing for outbreaks should be in place before restaurants can open.
“The great white whale is a vaccine,” he said, “but I think that’s a while off.”
Indeed, the most optimistic estimates for a COVID-19 vaccine put one at least a year away.
Jacobs, who co-founded the Milwaukee Independent Restaurant Coalition and has been vocal in petitioning governmental leaders to provide relief for independent restaurants, said his biggest fear is having an asymptomatic but contagious patron who would infect others at the restaurant.
“That’s going to add to the distrust (by) the general public,” he said.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted April 21 through 26 showed 80% of adults nationally think it’s a bad idea to open restaurants for dining without further testing for the coronavirus. In the Midwest, 78% thought it was a bad idea. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 points.
“I can’t force people to come back,” Jacobs said of diners. “If they don’t feel safe coming back, I can’t force them to do it.”
He’s also concerned about staff members returning to a workplace where they feel safe.
Costs are associated with reopening a restaurant, from restocking inventory to rehiring staff to any sort of remediation to deal with the coronavirus — such as possibly installing plastic shields between booths, adjusting the heating and cooling system for better ventilation, installing hand-washing stations, buying more masks and hand sanitizer, printing out more one-use menus.
Other issues include maintaining social distance in the dining room and kitchen; Dandan now has three cooks on the line where previously there were five, meaning the menu by necessity must be smaller, Jacobs said.
On top of the costs, it’s widely thought that restaurants would open gradually, with 50% capacity, as they did last week in much of Tennessee, or 25% capacity, as they did last week in Texas.
An open restaurant still must pay 100% of its fixed costs, such as electricity or rent, but would have to do it on 25% or 50% revenue — if diners even show up, Jacobs said.
The national Independent Restaurant Coalition last week asked Congress to put in place a $120 billion stabilization fund for small, independent restaurants. The biggest reason restaurants need such a fund, Jacobs said, is that they “face significantly lower sales, at least 50% or less.”
The money is needed to keep them afloat — to pay vendors for past due bills and to set up restaurants for whatever safety measures need to be put in place.
“We’re not looking for a bailout. We’re looking for help restructuring,” Jacobs said.
For any operator who is thinking about defying stay-at-home or shutdown orders, there is also the prospect of losing licenses.
The owner of Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub in Wauwatosa publicly said he intended to defy the governor’s order and open in early May.
But the city attorney said the action would put the various licenses for the business at risk. The owner then backed down.
Other small businesses wary of reopening
Other small business owners across Wisconsin are wrestling with some of the same issues.
Jennifer Bacon operates four Airbnb vacation rentals in Door County and also runs a cleaning business. As of Thursday, she had chosen to keep her rentals closed.
“I’m struggling right now, we all are. I’ve been basically living on nothing,” Bacon said. “But) I feel it would be completely irresponsible of me to open up anything at this point.”
Wendy Smith owns a gift shop in downtown Hartford with her husband, Jason Wix. Hartford is a community of 15,000 in Washington County about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
“I think we’re like everybody,” Smith said. “We’ve definitely taken a big hit in sales. There’s no doubt about it. But we have still maintained enough sales to keep us afloat.
“We’re willing to do whatever we have to do to keep our customers safe and keep ourselves safe and keep our business alive,” she added. “We want to stay safe. We want our community to stay safe.”
But she understands why some business owners who are barely hanging on would want to open immediately.
“We support people who are just trying to not go under,” she said.
How much risk is acceptable and who decides?
There will be risk in any reopening of the economy as long as there is no vaccine or cure for COVID-19.
“If you want zero risk, then you’ll have zero economic activity,” Mike Nikolai, president of Waupaca Foundry, told a Legislative committee on Thursday.
Who decides how much risk, if any, is acceptable?
There are business owners who feel their ability to make a decision in the best interest of their business and their community has been taken away from them. Some are becoming frustrated and tilting toward anger, especially in areas where there have been relatively few COVID-19 cases.
Tim Michalak, the mayor of Hartford, said he has heard from constituents who resent that government has taken away their ability to make an informed decision about reopening or choosing to patronize a business.
“They want to be treated like adults,” he said. “You, as a consumer, have the ability to make an informed decision. That ability has been infringed to a ridiculous degree.”
The Hartford Common Council voted April 21 to work toward reopening businesses in the city. The 53027 ZIP code, which includes Hartford, has had 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The ZIP code covers 93 square miles.
In all of Washington County, there have been 98 confirmed cases and four deaths.
“You have all the big box stores that never skipped a beat,” said Diane Mayer, who owns Salon Effervescence on Sumner Street in downtown Hartford. “But … they are forbidding a small little store that maybe has 20 customers a day, and they forbid them to open.”
Mayer is immediate past president of the Hartford Downtown Business Improvement district.
Her business is closed except for curbside pickup of gift certificates or hair care products. She will not reopen if she feels it would put her workers or clients in jeopardy.
“It’s not just about me,” she said. “Will we take every precaution? Absolutely. For our health and our clients’ health.”
Elsewhere, restrictions also vary from state to state — and even within states.
Getting a hair cut and shopping in person at retail stores was allowed again in much of Colorado on Friday. However, stay-at-home orders remained in place for Denver and several surrounding counties.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp allowed his statewide shelter-in-place order to expire April 30. But social distancing requirements and bans on large gatherings remain in place.
Big companies face big decisions
Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s operates some 1,100 stores across the country.
The retailer, which has closed its stores and been operating online only, is wrestling with when to reopen.
“We do anticipate a phased reopening and will look at a number of factors, including state and local guidelines, to determine where and when to reopen,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “We’ll also look at other inputs such as health data, market insights and the installation and delivery of protective equipment to our stores.”
Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual employs more than 5,000 people in the Milwaukee metro area.
“Except for a small number of essential on-site workers, our employees have been working from home since March 16,,” Betsy Hoylman, senior director of corporate communication for the company, said in an email.
CEO John Schlifske told employees in a town hall meeting last week that “the decision to return will be evidence-based and reflect our continued concern for employee well-being,” Hoylman said.
“When it’s safe to reopen, we foresee a gradual return beginning with teams that are more productive working together than apart. We also anticipate temporary changes to daily routines … We don’t have a timeline, but we will wait until we feel confident about bringing people back.”
USA Today and Sammy Gibbons of the USA Today Network-Wisconsin contributed to this report.
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