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360: Revisiting the original Safer-at-Home order nearly 1 year later

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Posted at 6:51 AM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 07:51:49-04

MILWAUKEE — Nearly one year after Gov. Tony Evers announced the original Safer-at-Home order in Wisconsin, TMJ4 News is revisiting that decision that shut down businesses and kept people home.

We also revisit the fallout felt around Wisconsin as the debate reached the state supreme court.

To gain a full perspective, we are "going 360," providing in-depth perspectives from people on all sides of the conversation.

One local doctor says if the Safer-at-Home order would have been left in place longer, Wisconsin may have been able to fully reopen sooner.

Meanwhile, an advocate for bars and restaurants says the industry may never recover from that initial order and the impacts of the pandemic.

We also spoke with two politicians on both sides of the aisle. One who felt the governor overstepped his authority in issuing the Safer-at-Home order and another who believes the move was necessary.

But first, we start with a Milwaukee restaurant owner, who shares her perspective on why, despite the ease of local restrictions, she has chosen not to reopen for in-person dining.

"I think that there were things that really could have got us through this faster," said Melissa Buchholz, owner of Odd Duck, a restaurant in Bay View.

Odd Duck was once exclusively an intimate dine-in experience. But when the pandemic hit, Melissa and her team switched to carryout and delivery only. One year later, it remains that way.

"We may have felt comfortable opening at some point if we were able to keep cases down," said Melissa, who says immediately available rapid-testing for customers and staff, better contact tracing, and more public buy-in surrounding mask mandates may have also helped her business open faster.

She remembers the governor's Safer-at-Home order providing consistency in the bars and restaurant industry in responding to the pandemic. She also remembers the uncertainty that came two months later, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck the order down.

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A bar is empty on St. Patrick's Day, Tuesday March 17, 2020, in Milwaukee. On Monday, Milwaukee County municipalities ordered bars and restaurants to close, except for carryout, delivery and curbside service, because of coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

"For me, it was bad news. I wanted us to stay as closed as possible to get through the pandemic as quickly as possible," said Buchholz.

Democratic State Senator and Minority Leader Janet Bewley says the Safer-at-Home order created a unified response to the threat of COVID-19.

On March 25, when the governor issued the order, there were 585 confirmed cases in the State of Wisconsin, according to Wisconsin's Department of Health Services. On May 13, when the order was overturned, that number ballooned to 10,902.

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"It turned into an argument. An ideological argument and it shouldn't have gotten there. It should've been kept as a medical emergency and that quickly fell apart," said Bewley.

Nearly an entire year later, she wonders how things may have looked had the order not been overturned.

"I think had there been a clear opportunity for the governor to have his observations recognized, observed, held to, that we could've had a different outcome. We'll never know," she said.

Republican State Representative Adam Neylon sees things differently.

"Nobody in government should have the ability to say what businesses are essential. What people are essential," said Neylon.

This image taken from video by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services shows Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Madison, Wis. Evers issued a statewide mask mandate amid a spike in coronavirus cases. (Wisconsin Department of Health Services via the AP)

Neylon is now signing on to support new legislation that would take away the ability of the state to order Stay-at-Home orders without following specific procedures. The bill he and other Republicans are supporting would also prohibit the governor from declaring any business as "essential" or "non-essential."

See the bill here:

"I think we need to protect the ability and the right to go to work, to make a living," said Neylon. "A lot of the non-essential businesses were small businesses that were shut down and a lot of small businesses are the background of our economy in Wisconsin."

According to a non-profit organization at Harvard University, the number of small businesses open in Wisconsin dropped 28% since the start of the pandemic. At that same time, revenue for leisure and hospitality businesses dropped by nearly 50%.

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Those statistics lead us to another perspective.

"In the best of times it's difficult for this industry to succeed, and if we would've had that order still in place, there would be no industry," said Scott Stenger, spokesman for the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

Stenger says the overturning of the Safer-at-Home order saved thousands of Wisconsin businesses, like bars, from going under.

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association estimates between 10% and 15% of restaurants have permanently closed. Without federal aid, another 20% have indicated they may have to do the same.

The Tavern League estimates bar and restaurant workers lost $24 billion in wages and nearly one million jobs nationwide.

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Now, the league says in order to not lose more workers, businesses need more funding.

"We need to move forward and look at ways we can help the industry on the state level," said Stenger.

From a medical standpoint, doctors will never know if leaving the Safer-at-Home order in place would have helped Wisconsin rebound from the pandemic faster. Dr. Jeff Potof with UW Health compares Wisconsin to states and other places internationally where strict lockdowns were enforced.

"They did much better than we did in controlling the pandemic. They had fewer cases than we did, which is great. They saved lives. But, they also got back to normal much quicker because they snuffed out the virus much quicker," said Pothof.

With COVID-19 cases trending down and vaccine rates trending up, he cautions reopening to 100% capacity too quickly in places like Milwaukee.

"You can't go full scale one way, because then your risk is so high that you're just going to find yourself turning it in back, and nobody wins in that situation," he said.

As we all hope for a return to normalcy by the end of this year, Wisconsin business owners say they're hoping for more state aid to help keep them afloat as they rebound from the pandemic.

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