Wisconsin retailers that aren’t considered essential businesses can open their doors a crack under new COVID-19 restrictions Gov. Tony Evers issued Monday that allow up to five customers at a time.
The relaxed restrictions, which officials say are geared toward small businesses, are the latest example of the governor’s efforts to “turn the dial” and reopen the state’s economy. Wisconsin has seen skyrocketing unemployment numbers since nonessential businesses were closed more than a month ago in an attempt to limit the spread of the respiratory disease.
Republicans criticized the move for not helping more businesses. In a call with reporters, Evers emphasized the loosening was meant to help smaller retail operations, rather than larger chain stores.
“I don’t speak for Kohl’s corporation, but I can’t imagine them opening their stores for five people,” Evers said. “All along we’re trying to mitigate the transmission of the disease and one of the ways to do that is to start small.”
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Under the new order, which is effective immediately, standalone or strip mall-based retail stores closed by Evers’ original “safer at home” order would be allowed to reopen to in-person shoppers. Drive-in theaters also are allowed to reopen, with some restrictions. Social distancing practices must be maintained at all operating businesses.
Businesses like nail and hair salons still must remain closed, and sit-down service at restaurants and bars remains prohibited.
Melissa Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said the order is expected to have the biggest impact on the state’s roughly 14,400 small retailers, who have 20 or fewer employees.
“Giving the opportunity for these businesses to re-enter into the marketplace brings back about 90,000 jobs as those come back online, so it’s a really critical move in the concept of regaining momentum in our economy,” Hughes said.
Some GOP lawmakers immediately criticized the new order as confusing or too restrictive for the state’s larger retailers.
“It’s another day and another confusing emergency order,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement. “This shutdown has put half a million people out of work. It’s time to get everyone back to work in every part of the state.”
Last week, Vos said a regional reopening was the most appropriate response, rather than Evers’ statewide approach.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said that while five customers makes sense for a small business, larger stores shouldn’t be limited to the same number.
“Anyone who has been to the grocery store, or Walmart, Target or Home Depot knows that other business locations can house far more than 5 people per location,” Wanggaard said in a statement. “So, a Hallmark can open, the day after Mother’s Day, by the way, with no more than 5 people in it, but a furniture store with 100,000 square feet can only have five people in it. It makes no sense.”
Evers said the latest order is based on a downward trend in COVID-19 cases in the state. He said additional relaxations, such as increasing the number of customers allowed in stores at one time, will happen if the trend continues.
Welcome to some
Steve Schmitt, owner of The Shoe Box in Black Earth, said Monday’s order was admittedly a small step but called it a step in the right direction. He said the store can see as many as 100 customers on a Saturday.
“I think if our customers want us to open, we’ll be open, even if it’s five at a time,” Schmitt said. “This is good. It’s a lot better than yesterday.”
Carol Schroeder, who co-owns the Madison gift shop Orange Tree Imports with her husband, Dean, and is head of the Monroe Street Merchants Association, said the new order could mean all the difference for small businesses struggling through the coronavirus-related shutdown, but also noted reopening under those rules might not be feasible for larger companies.
“Certainly, only a small business would be able to be open with only five customers at a time,” Schroeder said. “If you have a larger operation, like Best Buy, you wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Both Schmitt and Schroeder said one of the biggest challenges will be adjusting to the customer limit, which will necessitate a constant count of clients and refusing entry from others until someone leaves.
The National Association of Theatre Owners of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan applauded the order, which makes the state the 23rd to allow drive-in theaters to resume operations.
“A semblance of normalcy returns,” association president and Rhinelander cinema owner George Rouman said in a statement. “Based on the drive-in theater business model, this will enable guests to find some enjoyment and normalcy outside of their homes in a safe environment.”
Last week, Evers unveiled a series of publications — developed by WEDC and the state departments of Health Services; Tourism; and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection — that provide best practices and safety tips for businesses to follow when they begin to reopen.
“So while not every business at this time is able to be open, under the Badger Bounce Back Plan, WEDC was tasked with the idea of getting businesses ready,” Hughes said.
For retailers, WEDC recommends face masks for employees, signage to inform customers of new rules, social distancing procedures and increased sanitation of areas often touched, including doors or counters.
In April, businesses were allowed to provide curbside pickup and drop-off of goods and animals, including dog groomers, small engine repair shops and upholstery businesses. The order also allowed those that rent boats, golf carts, kayaks and ATVs to reopen.
Evers’ public health emergency — originally issued in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — expired at the end of the day Monday.
Officials with the Evers administration say the end of the order could spell trouble for some adjustments made to state services following the order. In addition, some elements in coronavirus-response legislation passed by the GOP-led Legislature last month are tied to the governor’s original 60-day order.
Evers’ legal counsel Ryan Nilsestuen said orders including those preventing utility shutoffs, banning evictions or foreclosures or providing credentialing flexibilities for health care workers could all expire within one or two months, if not sooner.
“Without extending the public health emergency, a lot of those provisions will either expire today, or expire in the next 30 to 60 days after today,” Nilsestuen said.
Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to requests for comment.
Wisconsin governors can declare unlimited emergency orders. Both Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle passed multiple such orders during major floods that slammed the state in 1993 and 2008, respectively.
However, Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the current lawsuit filed by GOP lawmakers seeking to end the governor’s “safer at home” order could limit the administration’s power on future emergency orders.
“We have repeatedly asked them to work with us on this,” Baldauff said. “We would love if they would extend the public health emergency. Frankly, we would love if they would really do anything here.”