They’re Back! Milwaukee Bars, Restaurants Can Reopen Friday

With the city entering the next phase of its coronavirus reopening plan, bars and restaurants will be able to open at 25% capacity.

Milwaukee bars and restaurants will be allowed to re-open for indoor service at 25% capacity starting at 2 p.m. Friday, Mayor Tom Barrett announced Thursday afternoon.

The long-awaited move comes after a review by City Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik of recent COVID-19 cases, Barrett said during a virtual news conference with officials from the city and Milwaukee County.

Based on conversations with Kowalik on Wednesday and Thursday, Barrett said the commissioner is confident after reviewing data from last weekend and today’s update that the criteria will be met to move to phase three of a business reopening plan.

Barrett highlighted some of the changes, for which Kowalik will issue a formal declaration on Friday:

  • Bars and restaurants can open for indoor service at 25% of capacity.
  • Outdoor dining will be allowed with precautions for social distancing and can be expanded under the pilot Active Streets for Business Program. 
  • Capacity for other businesses will be increased to 50% of occupancy with an absolute maximum of 250 people.
  • Child care facilities will be allowed to operate at 50% of their capacity.
  • Public and private gatherings will be allowed at 25% of capacity with a maximum of 250 people.
  • Salons and barber shops will be kept at 25% capacity with a one-to-one customer-to-staff ratio.

“The bad news, of course, is that the disease is out there and, unfortunately, it remains very, very strong,” Barrett said. “Cases are still appearing. Hospitals have still not seen a major drop in COVID patients. We are counting on businesses to make smart decisions.”

As a result, the city will be closely monitoring complaints against businesses, Barrett warned.

“No one wants to see their business singled out as a hotspot,” Barrett said. “It’s not good for business, it’s not good for public health and it’s not good for individuals. We are glad that we are able to take this step forward, but we do so cautiously.”

Barrett noted that during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the country was in too much of a rush to reopen businesses and the disease “roared back.”

“We are mindful of that. I’m assuming some people will be happy with our decision and some people won’t be happy with our decision,” he said. “I do so with trepidation because I don’t want people to get sick. We know what can happen if people congregate too much. I think right now with the weather and the marches going on, there are a lot of people that feel like we are over this. We’re not over this by a long shot. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Beth Weirick, CEO of the Downtown Business Improvement District No. 21, said the move will be a boost to businesses and employees alike.

“I know that so many of our businesses, our small businesses, their employees and their families have been struggling through this pandemic crisis as well as the crisis overall that our country is facing,” Weirick said.

Werick noted that the Active Streets plan will be enacted on June 16 and restaurants and bars can begin applying for permits to expand their dining areas onto sidewalks and possibly streets.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.