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360: The return to live in-person events

Posted at 5:41 AM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-08 08:06:45-05

MILWAUKEE — It's a complicated equation.

The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are dropping while the number of people being vaccinated quickly climbs.

By the end of May, the president says there will be enough vaccines for every adult American who wants one.

In Milwaukee, arenas and stadiums are welcoming back fans, festivals are announcing summer comebacks and capacity restrictions are being loosened.

In other states, mask mandates are ending despite continued warnings from the CDC.

Now, TMJ4 is "going 360" to provide in-depth perspectives from people on all sides of the debate. We talk to festival organizers ready to welcome back vendors and fans this summer, to the president of a service and hospitality union worried about workers coming back too soon, to the CEO of the Pabst Theater Group who is eager, but not yet ready to rebound and to an emergency physician with UW-Health who walks us through the gamble of the return to live events. That's where we start.


"I think throughout the pandemic, one of the things we kind of done, is when things looked better we may have been a bit too aggressive in our re-opening and then we see these spikes and then we do the worst-case scenario is we change the rules again and we have opened everything up and now we have to tamper back down," said Dr. Jeff Potof with UW-Health.

He says it is not necessarily bad that more and more people are returning to the public.

The vaccine rollout in Wisconsin is underway. Hundreds of thousands of doses are being administered statewide each week. But, he says the public should know that 60-80% of the population is vaccinated, planning to be back in a crowd is risky.

"Even though we can do some of those things, maybe with a little bit more freedom than we could late fall, there's still risk in doing those things, especially for those unvaccinated," said Potof.

Still, the Bucks have safely welcomed back thousands of fans and the Brewers are approved to do the same on April 1. Last week, three Milwaukee museums reopenedtheir doors with new precautions.

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That success signals hope to festival organizers like Evan Maruszewski and Keith Gaustad, co-founders of the Milwaukee Polka Riot.

"Our festival is very small, we're still kind of growing," said Maruszewski.

They're hoping to make a comeback in late August or early September.

"These folks have a lot more resources at their disposal to make a decision and we should probably do what they do," said Gaustad.

Linda Franzblau, who co-chairs The Morning Glory Art Fair, which is held near Fiserv Forum in late August, is hopeful, too. Her event was canceled last year.

"We're really not worried at all," said Franzblau. "We're very much looking at the vaccinations."

But, not all festival organizers are as ready to return.

"We've grown to 45,000 festival attendees..." said Wes Shaver, President of Milwaukee Pride Inc.

He made a decision in January to cancel the 2021 Milwaukee PrideFest. It's a decision he says he does not regret because he says it is important to understand the disparities in health and wellness and accessibility to LGBTQ people.

The LGBTQ community often has setbacks with access to resources, insurance, vaccines, and health care.

He also said it does not make sense financially to gamble with a return this year.

"To do it only halfway just doesn't make sense," said Shaver.

Pabst Theater CEO Gary Witt applauds big organizations like the Bucks and Brewers for welcoming back fans. Still, he too said Pabst Theater isn't able to do the same yet.

"If I'm at 25% capacity I'd have to talk every artist that wants to tour into taking a 75% reduction in what they're being paid," said Witt.

He hopes to be back open and hosting shows and concerts by late fall or early winter this year.

Until then, he says current capacity limits and business models are not attractive to touring artists and it's not feasible for them to make a full return, even despite already having approval from the Milwaukee Health Department for 25% capacity to host President Biden earlier this year.

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"You have to have more of a consistency of opening across the country in order for us to be back at a level where we can host national and international artists," said Witt.

In the midst of the push to reopen and return to normal are the workers. The bartenders and servers, for example.

I asked the President of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Union, Peter Rickman, how the return to Bucks games and other mega-events has gone over.

To date with re-opening, there has not been any issue with any potential compromises to workplace health and safety, said Rickman.

Still, he says until we beat this pandemic, a full return to the workforce is not possible and the economy will suffer.

"We've got thousands and thousands of people who are unemployed and under-employed in this industry because places are hovering at 10,25,50 percent occupancy so the solution here is to beat the pandemic so that we can re-open in full," said Rickman.

Everyone TMJ4's Ryan Jenkins spoke with agreed that taking that step towards normalcy or choosing to wait, says the number one priority still needs to be beating the pandemic with precautions in place like masks, social distancing, and hand-washing.

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