Assembly COVID ideas fall flat with these small business owners

By: - December 16, 2020 7:00 am
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Michelle Tressler recalls the evening of May 13 after the state Supreme Court canceled Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order that had blocked sit-down traffic at bars and restaurants like hers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

People she knew texted her with congratulatory messages. “I had no congratulatory feeling,” says Tressler, who with her husband Bill owns Hinterland Brewery and restaurant across the street from Lambeau Field in the Green Bay Titletown District. “I found it very scary that the governor had been stripped of his ability to use science to give us the best parameters and business practices.”

Hinterland reopened at the end of that month at limited capacity and has kept going since. A recent $20,000 state grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission was a welcome infusion of cash at a time of increasing financial strain, Tressler says.

But that’s only the beginning of what small business needs to survive, she and other small business owners warn: They need direct aid, from the state or more likely from the federal government, to help keep them afloat in the coming months until COVID-19 is sufficiently contained that customers will feel safe to come enjoy an evening out or spend a couple of hours shopping.

And they need it fast. “We’re all sinking ships right now,” says Milwaukee restaurateur and chef Amanda Dixon. “We can’t wait till January.”

What these small business owners don’t need, they say, are proposals like those outlined earlier this month by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos as part of a sketchy new round of COVID-19 relief for Wisconsin — such as waiving legal liability for businesses when there are COVID-19 outbreaks on their premises.

“It’s sort of a cop-out for prioritizing profits over people,” says Joella Striebel, who with her husband owns a string-instrument shop in La Crosse that switched to appointment-only operation to avoid crowds during the pandemic. “It’s our duty as business owners to keep ourselves and our customers safe — and I’m concerned that if these exceptions to liability become a reality, we’re going to see a lot more caution thrown to the wind.”

Striebel, Dixon and Tessler are part of a group of small business owners around the state organized by the Main Street Alliance, a small business organization that offers itself as an alternative to many of the other business lobbies.

“A lot of other business organizations around the country tend to be in favor of policies that focused on deregulation and cutting taxes,” says Shawn Phetteplace, Wisconsin state manager for the Main Street Alliance. Those and other policies promote “the consolidation of power in larger businesses,” he contends. “We were founded to help counteract that.”

Business liability protection is just one of the ideas that these small business owners question.

Such protection “certainly isn’t going to benefit most small businesses,” says Tressler. “We’ve really worked very hard to keep our customers and employees safe.”

When it reopened with limited capacity, Hinterland Brewing relied on business guidelines that the state promulgated toward the end of the Safer at Home order. But the order also had offered uniformity — with everyone all “on the same playing field,” she says. That’s not the way things are now.

“I’ve been saying all along restaurants and bars should probably be closed and be compensated for the closure,” Tressler says.

So far the outline offered by Assembly Republicans has not turned into  formal draft legislation.

Dixon, owner and chef of Lazy Susan, a Milwaukee specialty restaurant, says a proposed hospitality aid program leaves her with a number of questions, although one aspect — that it involves grants — is important. “We need grants, not loans,” says Dixon.

Tressler agrees: “Most restaurant businesses at this point just cannot afford any more debt.”

But as a Milwaukee business owner, Dixon is in a community with strong local health orders that have paced the opening of businesses with required limits on capacity. The configuration of the Lazy Susan space made it unprofitable for her to open even partially  and still meet the city’s socially distant seating requirements for restaurants, so she stuck with curbside pickup only.

Still, Dixon believes the city’s orders should be a statewide model. Instead, lawmakers are seeking to put limits on the power of local public health officers to impose local health orders.

“If every municipality would adopt these rules [like Milwaukee’s], I think that a lot of us in the state would have been better off,” she says.

Another concern that these small business owners raise is the pressure that some lawmakers want to put on schools to reopen by the end of January — including financial penalties for districts that stay virtual in the name of safety.

“I am a parent,” says Dixon. “Telling people that schools have to be open by January 31 — and then threatening schools to lose their funding, or to lose some component of funding if they don’t do that, I think is completely wrong.” Some school districts “are going to see money over the health and welfare of everyone,” she fears.

Decisions about schools might seem unrelated to how a small business operates, but for a business owner with children, they are inevitably intertwined. For the Striebels’ repair shop, Old Towne Strings, the relationship is even more complicated.

One of the couple’s children is autistic, and virtual schooling was not a good fit, so they opted to home school. Although in-person classes are available for special education students in their district, “for us, in-person learning just doesn’t feel safe at this time,” says Joella Striebel

The public school teachers have been very understanding and helpful, she adds. But for her, the whole equation points to the need for stronger financial help for everyone in order to take the pressure off families. “If we had any sort of real, meaningful economic relief, parents would feel less of a crunch to get their kids back to school,” Striebel says.

The school/business relationship has yet another layer for them, however.

“A lot of our business comes from the schools,” says Striebel, who has  contracts to provide string instrument repairs for area school districts. Most of that business dried up when schools went virtual, instruments didn’t need fixing and schools had to watch their budgets in order to be able to cover the costs incurred by virtual schooling.

Yet with all of that, she still considers ensuring safety in the pandemic a top requirement.

“Forcing kids back to school or forcing people back to work — it’s not a safe thing to do, and it seems to prioritize capital profit over human lives,” Striebel says. While she knows some small business owners have made getting back to business their top concern, “we feel a little bit differently. We’re very community-oriented, and we don’t want our customers getting sick.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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