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Wisconsin bars reopen after court throws out stay-at-home order -- some with new rules

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway speaks to CNN's Wolf Blitzer about video showing some crowded Wisconsin bars after the state's Supreme Court overturned the coronavirus stay-at-home order.

Posted: May 15, 2020 8:55 AM
Updated: May 15, 2020 8:55 AM


After weeks at home, some Wisconsin residents wasted no time in visiting local bars Wednesday night, shortly after the state's Supreme Court overturned the coronavirus stay-at-home order.

"First thought, we flipped it right into the parking lot," Matt Griffin, a customer at The Buzzard's Nest in West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb, told CNN affiliate WTMJ. "And yeah, we've got to get in and have a first drink."

Katie Koutski, a customer at the nearby Limanski's Pub, was just glad to relax with her friends and blow off some steam.

"I have a toddler at home and I'm a full-time nurse," she told WTMJ, "so it's been very stressful and hard to not be able to go out and be with my friends and family at the bars."

The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the order in a 4-3 decision, ruling Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' administration overstepped its authority when the state Department of Health Services extended the so-called "Safer at Home" order to May 26.

"We cannot let the court's ruling undo all the work we have done and all the sacrifices Wisconsin's (citizens) have made over these past few months," Evers said at a news conference Thursday. "We need everybody to continue doing their part to keep our families, our neighbors and our communities safe by continuing to stay safer at home."

As of Thursday, Wisconsin had 11,275 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 434 deaths, according to the state's Department of Health Services.

Bar owners took some precautions ...

After the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the state trade association for alcohol retailers, told businesses they could reopen immediately. It urged them to follow guidelines from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which advise businesses to have employees wear masks and frequently sanitize high-contact surfaces, among other steps.

Over the course of the night, seven customers showed up at BK's Bar in Shullsburg, Abby Gilbertson-Cottington, who owns the bar with her husband, told CNN. Most patrons stayed at least 6 feet apart, except for one couple who she believed may have been married.

"I asked if they wanted their beer opened, (but) only one person asked to open their own," Gilbertson-Cottington said. They took out half the bar stools, she said, and plan to frequently clean. The bar also has a temperature gun to check patrons for fever.

"Obviously, if someone is coughing we'll ask them to leave," Gilberston-Cottington added, "but everyone was healthy last night."

Still, not every guideline is realistic. While she wore a mask, Gilberston-Cottington said, "Gloves are not practical when opening beer bottles."

The owner of Limanski's Pub, Kathy Goedde, was watching the news when she saw the order was overturned. "I was pretty happy about that," she told WTMJ. She's limiting capacity to a third of what the bar could hold and reminding patrons to keep social distance, WTMJ reported.

Customers were greeted at the door with a sign that asked them to sanitize their hands upon entry, and to stay two bar stools apart, unless they're from the same household, the station reported.

Regardless, Koutski said she wasn't concerned about contracting the virus in the bar.

"I don't think the risk presents any higher than me going to a grocery store or me being out in the community in any other sort of way," she told WTMJ.

Asked if she would make her patrons wear masks, Gilbertson-Cottington told CNN, "How can you wear a mask and drink?"

Other states' stay-home orders have faced their own legal challenges. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected a challenge by a statehouse candidate and local businesses to Gov. Tom Wolf's order last month. In Michigan, the state House and Senate sued Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week, arguing her order, extended to May 15, was unconstitutional.

... But not everyone felt comfortable opening

Shutting down any business presents a financial hardship. BK's Bar has only been open for two and a half years, Gilberston-Cottington told CNN, and business was just picking up when the shutdown happened.

"We had enough money to be closed for a few more months," she said, "but that's not the point of owning a bar."

They got a warning from authorities on day three of the shutdown, when it was just Gilbertson-Cottington, her husband and his nephew in the bar, she said. Two weeks ago, they got a ticket for $451 after posting a photo on Facebook of five people in the bar.

"It was nice tonight to have the door open and people could walk right in again. It was beginning to feel like a speakeasy," she said.

But not every bar was comfortable reopening based on the Supreme Court's ruling.

This is It!, an LGBTQ+ bar in Milwaukee, posted a note on its Facebook page telling customers it wasn't ready to reopen just yet.

"We, like you, want life to return to normal, but we will not force any actions or decisions that compromise health and safety," the post said. "Our decision to reopen, when it is made, will be made rationally and under the guiding authority and scientific prowess of local Health and Government bodies."

George Schneider, the bar's majority owner, told CNN that he, of course, wants to reopen. But he also wants to keep his staff and customers safe.

"The Wisconsin Supreme Court may be a legal authority, but is not a public health authority," Schneider said. "You wouldn't take medical advice from a butcher, right? You'd go to your doctor."

Schneider said his late business partner lost good friends and customers during the HIV/AIDS crisis.

The community and the bar have been through hard times, Schneider said, and he expects they will overcome.

"But just like during the HIV and AIDS crisis, we need to be diligent and proactive and taking care of others' safety and health," Schneider said, "and make informed decisions, not knee-jerk reactions because we feel inconvenienced by something out of our control."

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