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Wisconsin Spotlight | April 28, 2020

MADISON —The state’s largest business advocate has rolled out its plan to get Wisconsin Back to Business. 

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s (WMC) proposal would use a number of risk factors to strategically reopen the many businesses closed or drastically limited under the Evers administration’s extended Safer at Home orders, WMC officials say. More so, it would offer employers a “clear vision” for when and how they can begin to operate. 

“We need to protect lives, but we also need to protect livelihoods,” said Kurt Bauer, WMC President & CEO. “A global health crisis has created an economic crisis, and it is time to fight back on both fronts. WMC’s Back to Business plan will provide a path for the state to reopen its economy, while still taking steps to protect the health of Wisconsinites.”

The plan was developed with input from a diverse group of stakeholders, including those in business, government and the medical community, according to WMC. It draws on best practices and recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. 

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate late last week was approaching 18 percent, according to the Center for Research On the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s nearing double the peak unemployment rate during the worst of the Great Recession. 

Economic activity in Wisconsin is down at least 60 percent from the same period in 2019 based on foot traffic data reviewed by CROWE. 

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, earlier this month predicted nearly one out of every three restaurants forced to close down during the pandemic will not survive.

So many businesses in this state aren’t just running out of time, they’re running out of hope, free market advocates say.  

“They need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and right now they’re not seeing it at all,” said Scott Manley, executive vice president for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. 

The Evers administration has lifted some restrictions. Golf courses are reopening, with strict social-distancing rules in place. On Monday, the Department of Health Services issued updated guidelines allowing dog groomers to go back to work, curbside drop-offs to resume, and some service shops to reopen beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning. Automated car washes also will be back in business. 

But it all feels like crumbs to so many businesses living on the edge of survival. 

The WMC plan aims to safely reopen all businesses based on a number of factors, particularly the level of face-to-face contact. It assigns a risk score to every business, identifying what each operation needs to do to protect customers and workers. Unlike the Evers’ Safer at Home orders, WMC’s plan isn’t one-size-fits all. It takes into account population density, infection rates in communities and regions, and the number of health care resources where a business operates. Firms with higher risk factors would have to take more preventative steps to reopen, including reducing the number of customers allowed at the business. 

“The plan really does a good job of looking at risk and managing it,” Manley said. “It establishes the criteria and steps to take to open back up, to protect workers, their customers and the general public, and to recognize the fact that La Crosse, Eau Claire or Wausau, is having a different experience with the virus than Milwaukee is.” 

Manley said the governor and members of his administration have promised to consider WMC’s Back to Business proposal. As of Monday, however, the administration did not appear to be heeding the concerns expressed by businesses statewide. The extended Safer at Home order is supposed to be in effect until May 26. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit by the Republican-led Legislature that asserts Evers overstepped his authority by extending his original emergency order. Based on statute, it would appear the Legislature will win the legal battle, but in these highly partisan times, will Evers follow the court orders?  

Manley said Wisconsin businesses don’t have the luxury of time. 

“Waiting until May 26 is too late,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are not working right now, making it difficult to make mortgage and rent payments. They just can’t wait.” 

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