Local Leaders Thought They’d Have Time to Respond When Safer At Home Was Overturned. They Didn’t.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Safer at Home, local leaders had to scramble to respond.

Confusion reigned in the aftermath of a ruling late Wednesday by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that immediately struck down the state’s Safer at Home order.

Bars rushed to open in many communities statewide, including the Milwaukee area, sparked by a message from the Tavern League of Wisconsin, which proclaimed that its members could “open immediately.” 

Meanwhile, local officials scrambled to gain control of the situation. Many figured they had time to react to the decision and develop a strategy. They didn’t. 

In Milwaukee, Mayor Tom Barrett countered the court’s decision by pointing out that a stay-at-home order implemented on March 25 remained in effect, leaving bars and restaurants in the city limited to take-out, curbside and delivery service.

It turned out to be a different story in Milwaukee County suburbs, which had tied their initial stay-at-home order to the state’s. 

“We relied on that. Once that went away, it threw open the doors,” South Milwaukee Mayor Erik Brooks said.

Brooks said some bars in the South Shore community opened immediately after the state’s highest court struck down the order.  Health officials representing the 18 Milwaukee County suburbs worked late into the night to come up with a new joint local health order that lasts through May 21.

“There was a time Wednesday night when things were essentially wide open and we ended up having people in our bars,” Brooks said. 

The new order allows for the reopening of most businesses, limiting the number of people allowed inside most establishments to 25 percent of their capacity. Salons, spas and playgrounds may also reopen, with restrictions. Restaurants and bars remain closed except for takeout and delivery. Gatherings must be limited to nine people or less.

“Our health officers acted quickly to fill the void left by the supreme court,” Brooks said. “I have serious concerns with the court ruling. There needed to be something in place. It’s simple. We aren’t ready to fully reopen yet. Not in Milwaukee County. Not in South Milwaukee. It might be different in some other places but not here.”

Brooks said he wants a phased reopening plan that places a premium on public health. 

“We have a one-week solution. I don’t know what it will look like beyond that,” Brooks said. “I’m hopeful that the governor and the Legislature come up with a plan or a rule that works for the state or region. I get that a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire state of Wisconsin isn’t best. But I would like to still see some cooperation here, and it starts in Madison.”

West Allis Mayor Dan Devine, in an interview on CNN on Thursday, said he is working closely with the city attorney and his city’s law enforcement leaders to interpret the ins and outs of the court’s decision. 

“It’s a classic Hobson’s choice,” Devine said.

Although some of the city’s bars clamored to open, others didn’t, he noted.

“For every bar that was talking on social media about opening up there were also bars saying that we aren’t ready for this and don’t feel it’s safe and are going to wait a little bit and try and let the dust settle,” Devine said. 

In a radio address on Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers stressed that the state had been in a “pretty good place” in its battle against COVID-19. 

“We had opened up small businesses across the state, putting folks back to work, and that was because of the good work of Wisconsinites across our state who banded together, stayed home, and stayed safe,” Evers says. “Now, just because the Supreme Court says it’s okay to open, doesn’t mean the science does. Deadly viruses don’t go away on their own and they don’t go away because the Supreme Court says so.”

Evers urged residents throughout the state to continue to stay at home, practice social distancing and limit travel. 

“The supreme court decision has caused a lot of confusion as to whether or not we even have an order,” new Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said.

Crowley, who was sworn in earlier this month to succeed Chris Abele, said he, too, is disappointed by the court’s decision but stressed the importance of moving forward without losing focus.

“We can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy community,” Crowley said in a press conference. “So, when we continue to think about businesses opening up, we need to make sure that they are keeping their employees safe and their consumers safe as well.”

The new order for Milwaukee County suburbs allows time for the communities, medical providers and public health officials to review data before “turning up the dial” even more in reopening the economy, Crowley said. 

“This also gives us a timeframe to reach out to businesses as they think about what reopening looks like to them,” he said. “We have to continue to have that conversation to make sure that we are all aligned and that we can have one Milwaukee County message as it relates to this pandemic.”

Enforcement of the order will fall on each individual suburb in Milwaukee County, Crowley said.

“That has to happen at the local municipal level,” he said.

In South Milwaukee, Police Chief William Jessup said in a statement that his officers will work with the city’s Health Department to ensure that the order is followed. 

“When violations arise, law enforcement will take note and educate and inform those individuals,” Jessup said. “Enforcement has been and will be a last step.”

In neighboring Waukesha County, all businesses are free to operate, and many opened their doors on Thursday. 

“We have already seen essential businesses take extraordinary steps to continue to provide service while keeping their employees and members of the public safe, and there’s no reason why other businesses can’t do the same,” Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.