Milwaukee continues to slowly turn the dial on reopening

By: - May 27, 2020 1:20 pm
Milwaukee Public Market at sunset downtown

Milwaukee Public Market Photo by pete via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Milwaukee, at both city and county levels, continues to slowly turn the dial to re-open businesses and decrease social distancing. After the statewide Safer at Home order was ended on May 13, Milwaukee adopted a strategy similar to the state’s original Badger Bounce Back plan.

While the municipality is in phase two of re-opening, local health officials say details of phase three will come later this week as they assess the risks.

“As quickly as we can move into getting back to some type of normal, we can make things worse,” Jeanette Kowalik, commissioner for the City of Milwaukee’s Health Department, said during the county’s regular COVID-19 update call on Tuesday. “It’s just like healing up from any procedure — that we have to do it in the right way, so we’re not causing more setbacks down the road.”

Phase one and two

On May 14, the city released its first order as part of the “Moving Milwaukee Forward” plan. As part of the order, restaurants and bars are restricted to take-out and delivery only. No seating may be provided, either inside or outside the establishment. Bars, however, are prohibited from delivering alcohol, and social distancing standards must be followed at all times.

Jeanette Kowalik, commissioner for the City of Milwaukee’s Health Department (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Jeanette Kowalik, commissioner of the City of Milwaukee Health Department (Photo by Isiah Holmes)


Salons and spas may operate, though only one client is allowed inside at a time, and all employees must wear masks or face coverings. Team and contact sports are prohibited, and beaches may remain open only for “moving through while walking, running, or biking.” Swimming is prohibited, and all of Milwaukee County’s public pools will be closed for the summer. Mayfair Mall will open, with enforced social distancing guidelines, but reopening is up to each individual store.

Although businesses are operating in a limited capacity, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley described the “staggering” economic impact during Tuesday’s call. “We’re looking at, again, a total of a $450 million impact, and that’s through new costs, but also a loss of revenue. And it’s going to have a dramatic impact on our ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Spokespeople with the Milwaukee Police Department told Wisconsin Examiner, “We are still working with  the City Attorney’s Office and the Milwaukee Health Department for enforcement. We will continue to educate our community regarding the importance of taking precautionary measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Although Crowley is grateful for the assistance Milwaukee has seen from the state he said that, “our need is still significant.” The Milwaukee County Transit System lost $1.6 million in passenger revenue over the two months it suspended rider fares. Passengers were also required to enter from the back, and limit any and all contact with the driver and one another. In the coming days, passengers will be allowed to use the front door, and fares will be reinstated. Rides have been limited to 10 passengers per bus. Through the CARES Act, $54.9 million will be allocated to Milwaukee County for transit, said MCTS Managing Director Dan Boehm.

Mayor Tom Barrett added that he’s been in contact with faith leaders across the city about the importance of avoiding large gatherings of congregations. “It really comes down, most vividly, to individual behavior,” said Barrett during the call. For people who feel a need to congregate and disregard social distancing as the weather improves, the mayor had this request: “Please don’t ruin it for everyone else.”

Mayor Tom Barrett (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)
Mayor Tom Barrett (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)

On May 21, a second order was released, imposing many of the same restrictions as the first phase order. What will be in the third phase iteration of the reopen strategy has yet to be determined.

“We’re re-evaluating where we’re at as far as moving from phase two in the city of Milwaukee to phase three,” said Kowalik. The city currently has a testing capacity of about 2,400 tests per day, with the county having an overall goal to reach 4,000 tests per day.

Underserved testing locations

Tests help provide medical officials with important data on local rates of infection, and how best to guide public health policy. Until recently, the Wisconsin National Guard maintained three sample testing teams in the Midtown neighborhood of Milwaukee. Midtown is within the city’s predominately African American North Side, which became one of the state’s first epicenters for the virus. Between May 11-23, over 8,305 specimens were collected from the area.

Midtown’s site closing down didn’t go unnoticed by residents, some of whom expressed that they felt the all-too-familiar sting of inequitable treatment of their neighborhoods. The same day Guard teams established the Midtown site, more teams were sent to Milwaukee’s predominately Hispanic South Side. The area has also been very hard hit by the virus and, like the North Side, has been a historically under-served area.

Dr. Tito Izard, president and CEO of Milwaukee Health Services, Inc., understands those concerns. “I don’t know how long we’ll be able to have a discrepancy, by having government structural disparity regarding health access,” he said on the call. The National Guard sample teams were conducting community tests, meaning anyone who wanted to get a test could. Now, on the North Side and Midtown, people will not be able to get tested unless they have at least one symptom of COVID-19. At the same time, anyone in Milwaukee County may get a test, symptomatic or not, at the South Side location.

“We know that there are going to be families on the North Side that won’t be able to make it to the South Side for screening,” said Izard. Going forward, he feels local officials will need to have a conversation about equitable screening opportunities throughout the community.

Perception of the virus, and misunderstandings about what a positive test means have also been challenges for health officials to overcome. Kowalik noted that attendance for tests at the Midtown site declined over time. While some residents didn’t take the virus seriously, others felt that a negative test today meant you would be safe tomorrow. Addressing these misconceptions in the community through outreach is becoming just as important as actually conducting tests.

Between May 11-26, the National Guard collected 10,683 specimens at the South Side location. Milwaukee County has seen over 6,577 positive COVID tests, and 259 deaths. African Americans continue to represent a majority of the dead, followed by white residents, and then Hispanics. The majority of positive cases, however, are Hispanic residents, closely followed by African Americans. In both positive test results and deaths, Milwaukee County represents nearly half of the state’s cases.

A critical and fragile period

Despite the continued restrictions, Milwaukee County’s rate of infection has continued to climb in recent days. Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the county’s Office of Emergency Management, explained that health officials are judging the county’s status based on five indicators. They are assigned a status color of green, yellow or red depending on how the situation for that particular indicator stands.

Over the weekend two of those indicators — the number of cases and the amount of care available for COVID-19 patients — trended in the “wrong direction,” said Weston. Cases shifted from yellow to red, and available care shifted from green to yellow, indicators of the severity with red as the worst. “Overall our indicators in the five categories are three yellows and two red categories,” said Weston. “Clearly we’re at a critical and fragile period.”

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes joined Milwaukee’s officials on the call, and said that he believes that the state is opening prematurely. “On Saturday, for the fifth day in a row, more than 20% of the COVID-19 tests came back positive,” said Barnes. “Our goal was to have 10% or fewer positive tests.”

LT. Gov. Mandela Barnes in his office. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in his office. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Regardless of how someone personally feels about the virus, Barnes urged all residents to take the precautions necessary to protect themselves and others. He said this is particularly needed as people begin to go out and patronize restaurants, bars and malls as they reopen.

“I know it feels like we’ve missed out,” said Barnes, reflecting on the slew of summer activities and festivals Milwaukeeans will not enjoy in 2020. “But I can guarantee you that we will miss out in so much more if we see another spike in infections.” He urges everyone in Wisconsin to be cautious, and to encourage others to do the same. Further plans and announcements on turning the dial on Milwaukee’s businesses will be made in the coming days.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.