Weeks After Going Dark, It’s Bar Time Again in Milwaukee

City bars and restaurants begin to reopen to dine- and drink-in service after 2½ months of forced closure due to the coronavirus.

Additional reporting by Jude Cramer

Five minutes after bars in the city of Milwaukee could legally reopen for the first time since mid-March, O’Brien’s Irish American Pub in Washington Heights got its first customer.

“Not having been in here for so long, I just wanted to say, ‘Hey, I’m glad you guys are back,” Wauwatosa resident Jeff Klarer said as he took a seat at the corner of the bar shortly after 2 p.m. Friday afternoon.

A regular at the Vliet Street watering hole for about eight years, Klarer wanted a tap of his favorite beer, a Lakefront IPA, but a shortage of products due to the scramble to open with only 24 hours’ notice meant he had to settle for a backup brew.

Over the next half hour or so, four more patrons joined Klarer at the bar as Joel Klamann, who has owned the bar for 22 years, made some last-minute preparations.

Mayor Tom Barrett announced Thursday afternoon that the city would lift restrictions put in place first by Gov. Tony Evers on March 17 to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The state order was dissolved by the Supreme Court on May 13, but Barrett and county officials imposed similar restrictions. The county eased a pillar of the regulations – a prohibition on bars and restaurants offering dine-in service – a week later, but Milwaukee, which has been hit particularly hard by the virus, kept its restrictions in place.

Klamann wasn’t ready for Barrett’s announcement on Thursday afternoon. “It caught me off guard, as far as getting food and beverage and staffing,” he said.

He moved tables around inside the spacious tavern to provide appropriate social distancing and bought masks for his employees but has been scrambling to find hand sanitizer.

On a regular Friday night in June, and with the Milwaukee Brewers playing at Miller Park, O’Brien’s would have about 10 employees working. On Friday, the city’s restriction that bars and restaurants only allow in 25% of their capacity meant that only Klamann, bartender Angela Verberne and one other employee were needed.

Klamann doesn’t expect that to change soon. “I think it will take a little while for folks to get comfortable in coming out,” he said. “Even if the capacity limitation was higher than 25% right now, I don’t think it would make that much of a difference. There aren’t any events. No sports on TV. We aren’t shuttling people to Brewers’ games and we have no activity across the street (at Wick Field),” Klamann said.

He thought about holding off until Monday to open, but wanted to “make a statement,” especially since bars and restaurants in nearby Wauwatosa began reopening two weeks ago.

O’Brien’s had been offering curbside food pickup but stopped last month. “It wasn’t paying off,” he said. “It’s important to get open.”

George Voell, owner of Wonder Bar on West Vliet Street. Photo by Rich Rovito

A few blocks down the street at Wonder Bar, owner George Voell sat alone in his small corner tap until his first customer arrived about an hour after he lit the small neon “open” sign. “It’s been very tough,” Voell said.

Voell had plenty of beer on hand because he contacted his distributors earlier after hearing a rumor that Milwaukee bars would be allowed to open this week.

He stocked up on hand sanitizer and face masks, which he has asked his employees to wear. “I will be wearing a mask when there are more than five or 10 people in here,” Voell said. “I’m 60 years old, I don’t need to mess around with stuff like this.”

He lost four of his six employees during the shutdown and is looking for a bartender or two. To recoup some of the money he lost, Voell has raised the price of drinks by as much as a dollar and has eliminated daily drink specials, for now. “Most people will understand, I think,” he said.

William Crampton, the first customer of the afternoon, greeted Voell and ordered a mixed drink.

“I’m tired of drinking at home,” said Crampton, who lives nearby. “I’m tired of being on video chat with my friends and asking what cocktail they are having today. I wish it would have opened a lot sooner.”

Victor’s, a nightclub and restaurant on the Lower East Side, was eager to open its doors. “There’s been no hesitation,” manager Victor Jones said. “I know people are anxious to get out and do some dancing and some dining.”

Longtime patron Barbara Culbertson, 76, made sure to attend the reopening. “I just miss that food that they serve here. And I miss seeing people and being able to sit among them, even though you still have to be at a distance.”

Although she acknowledged the risks, Culbertson is convinced that Victor’s will keep her and other patrons safe with its protective measures, which include facemasks and gloves for employees and temperature checks at the door.

“I really think they’re going to stick to their guns about keeping people safe,” she said.

Cesar Lopez rushed to open Cielito Lindo, a Mexican restaurant he co-owns in Walker’s Point, to provide work for a staff of 25. “We’re trying to take all the precautions and just get ready to open and have people come in and eat,” Lopez said.

While limited to carry-out service, Cielito Lindo operated with only four employees. “That was a big motivator for us to get more of our employees into work,” he said. “They have families.”

Dave Grycan, co-owner of Dugout 54 bar in Milwaukee, couldn’t wait to reopen, as he did Friday afternoon. “Everybody wanted to get back to work. I was just angry, especially when everyone else around us was allowed to open up and we were still shut down.” Photo by Rich Rovito

At Dugout 54 on West Bluemound Road near Miller Park, a lively crowd of about 20 people had gathered by late Friday afternoon

“We couldn’t wait to open,” co-owner Dave Grycan said. “Everybody wanted to get back to work. I was just angry, especially when everyone else around us was allowed to open up and we were still shut down.”

A sign on the door states: “Enter at your own risk.”

“On a personal level, I’m not worried,” Grycan said. “We’ve sanitized everything.”

For now, the bar is operating with two cooks and two bartenders, along with Grycan.“With the 25% capacity, we just don’t know how to predict our sales,” he said.

Dugout 54 had offered carryout dining service, but when bars and restaurants in three nearby communities – Wauwatosa, West Milwaukee and West Allis – reopened, it put a strain on business.

Revenue is down more than $500,000 so far this year after the mandatory shutdown kept the bar closed during what would have been St. Patrick’s Day festivities, the NCAA basketball tournament and an opening series at Miller Park between the Brewers and Chicago Cubs – not to mention all the other home games lost.

Grycan expected a sizeable crowd on Friday night for the reopening and fish fry special. “I’m sure a lot of friends will come and show support,” he said.

A lively atmosphere prevailed at Zad’s in Walker’s Point, though bartender Tara Jade was unsure how business would fare as the weekend progresses. “I know a lot of people are really excited and chomping at the bit to get out again, but also, it’s just going to be interesting with all the protesting,” she said.

Thousands of protesters have filled the streets in and around Milwaukee for the past week calling for social justice and an end to police brutality. Many restaurants and bars have remained closed, saying they believe Barrett’s move to reopen was intended to distract from or dampen the anti-police protests.

“I’m hoping people are still going to be going out,” said Jade, who has been taking part in the protests. “I don’t think [reopening] is really going to deter people from such a good cause. And I’m looking forward to going and walking again on Sunday.”



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.