Open… slowly but surely

(Published in the May 21, 2020 issue of City Pages)

A state Supreme Court order ended the Safer at Home order, but many local businesses are taking a cautious approach to reopening


Robyn Bretl at Weston Family Dental screens a patient by scanning his temperature Thursday.

Only two days after Gov. Tony Evers’ administration had eased coronavirus restrictions and allowed most non-mall retailers to reopen, a state Supreme Court decision on May 13 scuttled Evers’ Safer at Home order almost entirely, allowing all businesses to completely open as they see fit.

How they see fit to do so has been a mixed bag.

Weston Family Dental opened last week in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling, says owner Nick Bretl. They scheduled limited staff in the office, and two dentists including Bretl work split shifts so only one is on site at any given time. Patients are screened at the door where their temperature is taken and they answer questions about symptoms of Covid-19.

Robyn Bretl says no one has been sent home because of showing symptoms. Most people who aren’t feeling well call ahead to cancel, and Weston Family Dental is not charging cancellation fees in these cases.

The office is now scrambling to get patients booked while still maintaining social distancing measures. The office was closed for seven weeks and canceled 800 appointments in that time. They remained open for emergencies, something necessary with a base of 6,000 patients. One patient was a young girl with a sheared off tooth with a root exposed. Nick Bretl says she went to four other dentists and was refused before Weston Family Dental took care of her.

The Bretls says they’ve received death threats at the office and shut down their Facebook and Yelp pages because of vulgar comments. Nick Bretl has been critical of the shutdown on Facebook.

For many businesses, the sudden reversal didn’t mean they could immediately open. Most need time to order supplies, put employees on the schedule, and set up for social distancing and contagion mitigation measures. And many understand that the court ruling does not mean the coronavirus health threat has disappeared.

That’s partly why Whitewater Music Hall didn’t open immediately last week. Co-owner Kelly Patterson Ballard says they’d planned to open in some capacity on May 26—when the lockdown was slated to end anyway— so the news Wednesday came as a surprise. Ballard says Whitewater staff will wait for some guidance from local health officials and if that is not forthcoming, will adhere to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp’s phase I guidelines.

During the lockdown when food and drink establishments were allowed to offer carryout service only, the music hall had been selling crowlers (large cans of craft beer bottled on site) on Fridays. “There is still a deadly pandemic to consider,” Ballard says. “We will function with safety as an absolute priority and science as our guide.”

Whitewater on Monday got initial approval from a Wausau city committee to open a new outdoor beer garden to help serve customers in a safer manner during the pandemic. The plan will go to the city council later this month for final approval.

Tyler Vogt of Malarkey’s Pub and Townies Grill also plans to remain closed for the time being, according his post on Facebook. “We are currently working with staff on menu options, health department with safety protocols, deep cleaning and will start talking with our distributors and reps to get the same quality of fresh food, beer and spirits we are known for,” the business wrote.

The Mexican street taco restaurant in Wausau, La Taqueria, elected to remain takeout-only for the time being.

Others, such as Tine and Cellar in Weston, opened Friday with limited seating indoors and space in its outdoor patio. A few people at the bar and a few dozen diners enjoyed the restaurant Friday evening.

Marathon County Health Officer Joan Theurer urged residents to continue safe social distancing practices, and for businesses to follow best practices outlined by the WEDC reopening guidelines. North Central Health Care is maintaining its restrictions on its nursing homes, community group homes and inpatient behavioral health hospital.

A new report from the Badger Institute showed the state is losing $189 million every day in economic activity from the shutdown, and $5.1 million in Marathon County specifically.

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg says she doesn’t currently have any plans to implement any kind of stay-at-home measures as some communities have. But city offices will remain closed to the public for the time being, Rosenberg says. “If you are confused by what’s going on, you are not alone. We’ve been through a lot of chaos recently and I want to approach this in a methodical, fact-based, and lawful way,” Rosenberg says.