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Wisconsin Spotlight | Nov. 18, 2020

MADISON — As state and local governments lock down more of Wisconsin in the face and fear of surging COVID-19 numbers, owners of bars, restaurants and other small businesses are growing increasingly desperate. 

One southcentral Wisconsin restaurant owner says he’s only paying 25 percent of his tax obligations to governments that have drastically restricted the number of patrons he can serve and have placed his business in jeopardy. 

“What’s good for the good is good for the gander,” he said.

While small businesses see their sales plummet, they still face the same — or rising — sales, property, and income tax. 

Bars and restaurants are closing at an alarming rate, as state and local health bureaucrats are imposing more restrictions, citing more COVID “criminals,” even urging the cancelation of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

Dane County, which has been a statewide leader in sweeping and constitutionally suspect public health orders, on Tuesday announced an array of new COVID-19-related restrictions. Public Health Madison & Dane County’s latest public health orders ban mass gatherings and limit outdoor get-togethers to 10 or fewer people. No more in-person games, sports, group exercise classes, movies, conferences — in general, life. 

The order began this morning at 12:01 a.m., tentatively set to end on Dec. 16. 

Since Oct. 7, COVID-19 cases in the county have increases nearly 300 percent, according to the local health agency. In the past two weeks, 5,758 people have tested positive. 

“In the last two weeks, there have been 675 people linked to a cluster in one of the following sectors: assisted living, skilled nursing, workplace, healthcare facility, sports team, school, other public- facing business/services, childcare, church, bar/restaurant, salon, and other,” the health order states. 

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said we all need to recognize the public health crisis. But policymakers and public health officials also have to realize what’s at stake for so many small business owners, including a restaurant industry that boasts the second-largest number of employees in country. 

“We have to protect our most vulnerable, but we can’t completely destroy the economy, the people who have spent their live savings, mortgaged their homes” Hillmer said. 

What is particularly frustrating, Hillmer said, is a lack of direct data. After eight months of the pandemic, COVID trackers have struggled to identify where the spread is coming from. There’s not a clear picture, for instance, whether a coronavirus case at restaurants is coming from inside, curbside service, or takeout. 

And orders are being crafted in a sweeping, one-size-fits-all way. 

WRA currently is conducting a survey of its members. Hillmer doesn’t expect any improvement from the last survey earlier this fall when one-third of operators said it was unlikely their restaurants will still be in business in six months, if business conditions remained the same. 

Hillmer said even if a vaccine goes out soon, it could be several months before the general public receives it. 

“Restaurants owners probably have four, five months that they are going to have to try to survive,” Hillmer said. “It could be a very long winter.” 

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