RIVER FALLS — Shooter’s Pub owner Dan “Shooter” Suffield said the neon light outside his bar was off Wednesday night, May 13, but the lights and jukebox were on inside where around a dozen friends and passersby were having a long-awaited drink.

It was the first night he was allowed to open since March, following a 4-3 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision to overturn the extended Safer at Home order. The statewide order prohibited non-essential travel and closed many businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the order was struck down, questions remained for owners and patrons about what exactly the high court’s decision meant for local businesses.

“There are so many grey areas,” Suffield said about what bars are allowed to do and what precautions need to be taken, such as occupancy restrictions and sanitizing requirements. He said he wants “to play it safe” and was checking with the Pierce County Public Health Department Thursday for clarifications.

Despite the uncertainty, Suffield said it was great to reopen Wednesday and customers were grateful for a venue to socialize with friends.

“Everybody was really excited, and people were thankful,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I was thanked.”

University of Wisconsin-River Falls students (from left) Jared Hunter, Tyler Blum and Matt Elbe were among a handful of patrons inside Shooter’s Pub in River Falls shortly after 3 p.m. May 14, 2020. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
University of Wisconsin-River Falls students (from left) Jared Hunter, Tyler Blum and Matt Elbe were among a handful of patrons inside Shooter’s Pub in River Falls shortly after 3 p.m. May 14, 2020. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

Wisconsin’s bars have become a focal point for debate over the Safer at Home order and its economic impact.

The Tavern League of Wisconsin, a trade organization representing bars in the state, was quick to tell its members Wednesday night that it was OK to open up while following published safety precautions by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Chambers of commerce in River Falls and Hudson stated they were reviewing the court’s decision Thursday and would provide guidance for local businesses.

The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday released the first results from its Small Business Pulse Survey, which looked to gauge how businesses across the country have been affected by the pandemic. In Wisconsin, nearly 88% of businesses surveyed stated the pandemic has had a large or moderate negative effect, while around 8% responded that it has had little or no effect. More than 70% said revenue decreased the week of April 26-May 2.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development received more than 518,000 unemployment applications March 15-May 9.

Border issues

The Supreme Court’s decision also created questions about businesses on the border and whether people from Minnesota would venture into Wisconsin to shop, eat and drink.

Adam Wronski, a student of Ripon College near Oshkosh, Wis., who has been living in Red Wing during the pandemic, said he won’t be crossing the river out of concern for the community and bar employees.

“Although I am fairly confident I do not have COVID-19, the simple fact is that it is well known that someone can have the virus and be entirely asymptomatic,” Wronski wrote in an email Thursday. “I would not want to put others at unnecessary risk of getting the virus just because I am bored at home and want to go out to the bars for some much-needed entertainment.”

There were 11,275 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 434 deaths in Wisconsin as of Thursday, according to the state health department. In Minnesota, the infection count reached 13,435 with 663 deaths to date.

There have been 15 positive tests (10 of the residents had recovered) in Pierce County as of Thursday, and 37 in St. Croix County as of Wednesday (17 had recovered), according to local health departments.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced the state’s stay-at-home order would be lifted next week with some restrictions, but that restaurants, bars, salons and gyms won't be allowed to open until June 1 at the earliest.

Gov. Evers responds

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said during a Thursday media briefing the state was in a good place in the battle against COVID-19 before the Supreme Court decision, which he said could now jeopardize the work done to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

“Despite that good work by Wisconsinites across our state who banded together, stayed home and stayed safe, Republican legislators have convinced four of our Supreme Court justices to throw our state into chaos,” he said.

Now, Evers said, instead of a comprehensive statewide approach, municipalities are creating their own sets of rules.

“That means you might have to follow a different set of rules than your neighbors across the street and if you own businesses in multiple locations or have employees that live in a different community than the one they work in, things are going to get very confusing, very fast,” he said.

Wisconsinites need to continue doing their part to keep each other safe, he continued. “The Supreme Court may have changed the rules for how we operate, but it sure the heck didn’t change how viruses operate,” Evers said.

When asked if his administration should have taken a different approach or had a backup plan, Evers said he doesn’t have any regrets.

“We did the right thing,” Evers said. “I suggest those four justices did the wrong thing.”

READ MORE: Reactions pour in over Wisconsin Supreme Court’s strike down of extended Safer at Home order

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, spoke with Evers by phone Thursday morning to discuss the rulemaking process and next steps for the state’s COVID-19 response plan.

Local plans

St. Croix County asked residents to continue following distancing, sanitizing and masking guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and county health department, Public Health Administrator Kelli Engen said Thursday. St. Croix County health officials were working on implementing a local COVID-19 plan, she added.

Pierce County, which has been working closely with St. Croix County on pandemic response, is expected to issue a similar plan.

“We ask citizens and business owners to be safe with their activities and to be patient with us while we navigate this newest information,” Engen said.

River Falls Mayor Dan Toland in a news release Thursday said the Supreme Court’s decision caused confusion and frustration among Wisconsin municipalities. The city will update its COVID-19 recovery plan — Crushing COVID-19 — in response to Safer at Home being overturned. An updated version is expected early next week.

“In the meantime,” Toland said, “I expect that local businesses that choose to open or expand operations, will carefully follow CDC guidelines for reopening and expansion, as well as those provided by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.”

New Richmond City Council was scheduled to meet 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss and potentially take action regarding the Supreme Court’s decision. Hudson Common Council will meet in emergency session 3 p.m. Friday.