Now That It’s Legal, Will Wisconsin’s Restaurants Reopen? We Asked Local Owners

Bars and restaurants are reopening. Well, some of them.

To open or not to open. That is the question.

La Estacion Mexican restaurant in Waukesha is still only open for takeout and delivery, and won’t be ready to accept dine-in guests until Tuesday at the earliest. Mainstream Bar & Grill, just a quarter-mile to the north, has had to turn patrons away after reopening for fear of overcrowding.

It’s the tale of two restaurants, and it’s playing out all across Wisconsin.

Unlike in Milwaukee or Racine and other more cautious municipalities, there are no coronavirus-related restrictions in Waukesha County right now. Restaurants can do as they please regarding reopening.

Places like La Estacion have chosen to stick with only being open for carryout and delivery. Others, like Mainstream, have decided to return to normal — albeit with precautions.

Jon Dufek, the owner of Mainstream Bar & Grill, said his staff was ready to operate safely and let people back into the building.

But La Estacion’s owner, Tony Marquéz, said it was impossible to be ready on such short notice when the Wisconsin Supreme Court narrowly overturned Safer at Home in its entirety Wednesday afternoon.

“First of all, we were taken by surprise to open so quickly,” says Marquéz, who has been part of Waukesha’s restaurant business for almost 30 years. “We’re not ready.”

Some restaurants and bars around the state were open and busy Wednesday night, hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Safer at Home by one vote, while others decided it wasn’t safe to open yet — despite the lost revenue.

Marquéz hates telling customers they aren’t fully open yet. Those customers are probably going to end up at a competitor’s restaurant, putting La Estacion further at risk after a rough two months of slow business.

“They (the government) force us to shut down, whether you like it or not. And if you stay open, they put you in jail … Now they say ‘Go ahead and open. Who cares if the pandemic spreads?’” Marquéz says, letting out his frustration with state and local inconsistency. “Now we’re forced to open quickly, because our competitors are open right now and they’re packed … The goddamn government isn’t going to come in here and staff the tables.”

“Some of the bars are packed without masks, without six feet apart … How many of these people are carrying the virus?” Marquéz continues. “It’s a breeding ground for this virus, and it’s going to spread like wildfire now.”

Dufek disparages the idea that it was impossible to get going so quickly and to do so safely. He says he didn’t lay off any staff at Mainstream during the shutdown, and so he didn’t need to retrain anybody. His 20-plus employees were all already up to speed on social distancing guidelines, so all they had to do was remove 40% of the seating in the bar-restaurant and make sure to distance themselves from patrons, on top of consistently disinfecting high-traffic areas like doorways and the bar.

Still, Marquéz and others feel it’ irresponsible to open up without more guidance.

Cindy Beecher, manager at the Cue Club of Wisconsin, says she is waiting for more guidelines from the federal and local governments. The patchwork of guidelines and rules have left Cue Club feeling there isn’t a guaranteed safe way to open up its in-house dining area.

“We would rather wait and be careful,” she says. Cue Club’s capacity is about 300, which is 30 times greater than the most recent Safer at Home guidelines allowed in any setting.

A manager at Margaritas Mexican Grill who did not provide his full name says, “We opened (Wednesday) because we’ve had two months of waiting. The employees have been hurting and waiting.” He declined to answer any other questions. 

Marquéz believes state leaders should’ve given restaurant owners clear guidelines.

“This was the most irresponsible way to reopen the businesses,” Marquéz says “The ones who are not responsible, they open immediately. They obviously don’t care about the health of their employees.”

Dufek disagrees.

“You want to do right by all of your employees,” he says. “There are more people that are wanting to come in than we can actually seat. We’re actually turning people away just because we don’t have the space for it.”



Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan