RIVER FALLS — It was a Friday night in a college town during a pandemic, and Main Street was quiet.

“It’s a weird silence,” said Sara Kamrowski with Luigi’s Pizza.

On a typical weekend, the sidewalks in the city with more than 15,000 residents and a University of Wisconsin System campus would be busy with students walking from sporting events, or people hopping between watering holes downtown. But on this night, April 17, a day after Gov. Tony Evers extended a statewide Safer at Home order, restaurants like Luigi’s were among the few businesses allowed to be open.

Restaurants like Luigi’s Pizza are among the few businesses allowed open April 17, 2020, by Gov. Tony Evers’s Safer at Home order. The restaurant offers take-out orders and delivery only. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
Restaurants like Luigi’s Pizza are among the few businesses allowed open April 17, 2020, by Gov. Tony Evers’s Safer at Home order. The restaurant offers take-out orders and delivery only. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

Even so, the dining room looking out onto Main Street was empty, shuttered by order of the state to prevent the spread of the respiratory illness COVID-19.

The restaurant is doing similar business to before the pandemic, but customer patterns have changed drastically, owner Chuck Kamrowski said. They can no longer plan on pre- and post-game rushes, or locals coming in for a bite to eat before a movie.

“Everything happens now in a two-and-a-half-hour period,” he said. Once the dinner rush quiets down, so do the phones.

Chuck, Chance and Sara Kamrowski of Luigi’s Pizza in River Falls pose April 17, 2020, in the family restaurant’s empty dining room, closed as part of Wisconsin’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
Chuck, Chance and Sara Kamrowski of Luigi’s Pizza in River Falls pose April 17, 2020, in the family restaurant’s empty dining room, closed as part of Wisconsin’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

The Kamrowskis thanked their loyal customers for supporting the restaurant at a time when small businesses locally and around the country are struggling to survive.

“I keep telling myself this is only temporary,” Sara Kamrowsk said. “There are going to be people back here on their first date, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, and we’ll have teams back in here again.”

‘Zero income’

While some of the city’s bars have switched to selling take-out food, others don’t have the option. A couple blocks away from Luigi’s, at the corner of Main and Elm streets, Shooter’s Pub is closed entirely.

“I have zero income coming in because I don't sell any food,” owner Dan “Shooter” Suffield said in a phone interview.

Shooter’s Pub in River Falls sits closed April 17, 2020. Before the pandemic, weekends accounted for upwards of 80% of the bar’s weekly sales, owner Dan “Shooter” Suffield said.
Shooter’s Pub in River Falls sits closed April 17, 2020. Before the pandemic, weekends accounted for upwards of 80% of the bar’s weekly sales, owner Dan “Shooter” Suffield said.

Weekends are crucial in the bar industry, accounting for as much as 80% of the weekly sales at Shooter’s Pub before the pandemic, he said.

“That’s the lifeblood right there.”

Though income has dried up, Suffield said he and other local business owners continue to spend money on cleaning and renovations during the downtime.

He also found a way to give back to the community.

A soup crawl was planned for the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, but a prohibition on large groups in the early days of the pandemic put a stop to it. With the food already made, Shooter’s Pub announced on Facebook it would hold a soup fundraiser to benefit River Falls Community Food Pantry. Soup sales and other donations brought in $190, which Shooter’s Pub and the nearby Broz Sports Bar & Grill each matched. A $570 check was delivered to the food pantry.

“We weren’t taking in any money, but we were able to donate some money,” Suffield said.

Johnnie’s Bar would normally be packed for happy hour, which includes a 60-40 drawing with proceeds going to local nonprofit organizations, but sits empty Friday night, April 17, 2020. Since starting the raffle four years ago, Johnnie’s has raised around $50,000. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
Johnnie’s Bar would normally be packed for happy hour, which includes a 60-40 drawing with proceeds going to local nonprofit organizations, but sits empty Friday night, April 17, 2020. Since starting the raffle four years ago, Johnnie’s has raised around $50,000. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Popcorn to go

Across the street from Shooter’s Pub, vehicles were pulling up outside the Falls Theatre. It was one of the most active spots downtown.

With movie screenings banned by the Safer at Home order — and new releases pushed back by the big studios — Falls Theatre owner Michelle Maher had to get creative.

The door is open April 17, 2020, at the family owned Falls Theatre. With movie screenings prohibited, owner Michelle Maher made the switch to selling popcorn and other snacks for curbside pickup and delivery. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
The door is open April 17, 2020, at the family owned Falls Theatre. With movie screenings prohibited, owner Michelle Maher made the switch to selling popcorn and other snacks for curbside pickup and delivery. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

On Friday night she was working the concession stand with her children, selling popcorn, soda and candy for curbside pickup and delivery.

“We go through a lot of popcorn,” said her son, Michael Maher, busy at the machine trying to keep up with demand.

“Our community has stepped up and supported us,” Michelle Maher said.

Michael Maher works the popcorn machine Friday night, April 17, 2020, at the Falls Theatre in River Falls. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
Michael Maher works the popcorn machine Friday night, April 17, 2020, at the Falls Theatre in River Falls. Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

Popcorn to-go has been such a hit, she’s considering keeping it going on weekends even after the pandemic subsides. Until then, selling snacks will at least keep the family-owned Falls Theatre on people’s minds.

“Our customers tell us they want to come back,” she said.

Nataly Gomez stopped in to get a bucket for her child, a student at Rocky Branch Elementary accustomed to the school’s biweekly “Popcorn Friday” events. With school out, Gomez said she wanted to fill the void with movie theater popcorn.

Jennifer Califf was at the Falls Theatre to get popcorn for a movie night at home, a common pastime during the pandemic. She learned recently her son, a high school senior, never saw “The Wizard of Oz,” and she said that needed to be rectified.

“How is that possible?” she joked.

River Falls resident Jennifer Califf poses April 17, 2020, outside the Falls Theatre after buying two buckets of popcorn for a family movie night screening of “The Wizard of Oz.” Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
River Falls resident Jennifer Califf poses April 17, 2020, outside the Falls Theatre after buying two buckets of popcorn for a family movie night screening of “The Wizard of Oz.” Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

School’s out

Schools statewide were closed through the rest of the academic year under the governor’s extended order, meaning K-12 students will continue with a distance-learning program set up in response to COVID-19.

For seniors such as Califf’s son, Safer at Home means finishing high school apart from friends.

For student athletes, it means a season of canceled games.

The River Falls High School girls’s soccer team was scheduled to host New Richmond Friday night, April 17, 2020, but the game was canceled, along with every other high school sporting event due to the state’s Safer at Home order. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
The River Falls High School girls’s soccer team was scheduled to host New Richmond Friday night, April 17, 2020, but the game was canceled, along with every other high school sporting event due to the state’s Safer at Home order. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Students at UWRF face similar changes, with campus buildings locked down, instruction switched to online and WIAC spring sports canceled.

Friday was to be the opening night of "Eurydice” at the University Theatre, but the Kleinpell Fine Arts building was dark.

“We would love to say ‘the show must go on,’ but it really can't,” reads a message on the University Theatre webpage. “Our students, faculty and staff are sad that we have to cancel this show, but staying safe and keeping our patrons safe is the most important thing right now.”

The University Theatre marquee is empty April 17, 2020, on what was supposed to be the opening night of the play "Eurydice.” Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia
The University Theatre marquee is empty April 17, 2020, on what was supposed to be the opening night of the play "Eurydice.” Michael Brun / RiverTown Multimedia

The May 9 commencement was canceled as well. Seniors will have the option of walking in December or at a make-up ceremony scheduled, at least for now, in August.

With bars closed and the Safer at Home order extended to May 26, a full week after final exams, graduates will have to postpone group celebrations or have a “virtual happy hour” — just another part of life in a college town during a pandemic.

If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper righthand corner of the homepage.