RIVER FALLS — It was a Friday night in a college town during a pandemic, and Main Street was back open — with limits.
RiverTown Multimedia chronicled the impact of COVID-19 on River Falls in mid-April and the effect of Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide Safer at Home order that shuttered many businesses and prohibited nonessential travel. The Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the order a few weeks later, allowing bars and restaurants to resume serving eager patrons.
In the months following the high court’s decision, local businesses dealt with positive COVID-19 tests, evolving direction on face coverings and income that never returned to pre-pandemic levels. Starting Oct. 8, a new statewide order limited indoor public gatherings to 25% of posted occupancy.
- UPDATE (Oct. 14, 2020): Wisconsin judge blocks 25% occupancy cap in latest blow to Gov. Evers' pandemic response
On Friday, Oct. 9, a day after the order went into effect, Shooter’s Pub owner Dan “Shooter” Suffield could only let in 31 people at a time.
“We’re trying to make do the best we can with what we got,” Suffield said. For his one-room tavern, the 25% occupancy cap will mean bands cancelling gigs and reduced sales on weekends.
The governor’s latest order was in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed hospitals in parts of the state, according to a news release announcing the measure Oct. 6. The limit on indoor public gatherings — with some exceptions such as schools and churches — goes until Nov. 6.
Suffield said the timing of the order is especially rough for his bar, cutting into Halloween that falls on a Saturday, the extra hour gained at the end of daylight saving time Nov. 1 and the days surrounding the election.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin said it would review whether the order, made without legislative oversight, complied with the state Supreme Court decision that overturned Safer at Home. In the meantime, the trade organization warned members about a $500 fine for violations.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, in a statement Oct. 7 said GOP lawmakers are confident a judge would find the order invalid if challenged in court. He called on the state health department to submit the emergency rule to a joint legislative committee for review.
Suffield said business owners want to do the right thing. For him, that meant calling Pierce County Public Health quickly after employees tested positive for COVID-19 around Fourth of July weekend. He issued a joint statement with the health department advising patrons of the possible exposure.
Business owners think of their regular customers as family, Suffield added, and want them to do what is best for their circumstances — even if that means staying away.
“I've got customers that have not set foot in my bar since March,” he said. “That's their prerogative and I'm not mad at them.”
Surge in cases
Six months ago western Wisconsin was mostly untouched by the pandemic, with seven lab-confirmed cases in Pierce County and 11 in St. Croix County as of April 16. Those numbers have since ballooned to 511 cases and seven deaths in Pierce County and 1,155 cases and nine deaths in St. Croix County as of Oct. 9, according to the Department of Health Services. Wisconsin set a one-day record of 3,132 new cases reported Oct. 8
“The unfortunate reality is this: the disease activity level of COVID-19 in Wisconsin is so high that going to a gathering puts you at very high risk of exposure,” DHS Secretary-designee Palm said in a news release.
"Whether we like it or not, we have to change the course of this virus, and that’s going to take a united effort." @GovEvers & #DHSWI Secretary-designee talked #COVID19_WI & a new order limiting the size of indoor public gatherings. See Emergency Order #3: https://t.co/vT594VuVwy pic.twitter.com/q7uvWXc2Lq
"Whether we like it or not, we have to change the course of this virus, and that’s going to take a united effort." @GovEvers & #DHSWI Secretary-designee talked #COVID19_WI & a new order limiting the size of indoor public gatherings. See Emergency Order #3: https://t.co/vT594VuVwy pic.twitter.com/q7uvWXc2Lq— WIDeptHealthServices (@DHSWI) October 6, 2020
The order limiting indoor public gatherings coincided with the governor announcing more than $100 million in economic investments, including $50 million for a second round of “We’re All In Grants” by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation prioritizing restaurants, taverns, salons and barber shops negatively affected by the pandemic.
The first round of grants this spring provided more than $65 million for 26,000 businesses around the state. The city of River Falls over the summer also awarded 11 small businesses a total of $105,000 in recovery loans.
The Evers administration singled out privately-owned movie theaters to receive $10 million in support.
Falls Theater owner Michelle Maher said the help is needed — and made possible thanks to efforts of the regional board of the National Association of Theatre Owners — but government funding will not be enough to save theaters facing a double whammy of capacity limits and a lack of new movies to draw in hesitant crowds.
“We're not going to survive because we get a government grant,” Maher said. “We're going to survive because we are a small business in a community that supports its community.”
That support was evident when the family-run theater announced on Facebook it would begin screening the science fiction movie “Tenet” the weekend of Oct. 9. The post received hundreds of likes and shares.
There were five presale tickets sold for the 7 p.m. screening as of Friday morning and a few more by showtime, Maher said, just about at the 25% capacity of the theater’s 48-seat Auditorium 2.
Maher said she is forging ahead on renovating Auditorium 1 while also pivoting to selling snacks like popcorn and soda for pickup and delivery. She said she is looking at making to-go concessions a long-term business venture.
“The reason it has worked is for the simple reason that people want to see us succeed,” Maher said. “And we've never overcharged for concessions.”
The dining room overlooking Main Street has remained closed at Luigi’s Pizza.
Owner Chuck Kamrowski said only being able to open a handful of tables due to spacing requirements would not be worth the added work or the risk of shutting down over a COVID-19 exposure.
“I’m better at 70% business than 0% business,” he said.
Takeout and delivery orders have remained steady throughout the pandemic, Kamrowski said, but customer patterns have been hard to plan around, especially with University of Wisconsin-River Falls students returning for the fall semester.
“You can tell when they came back,” he said of college students — not only because of orders to the dorms, but also an overall change in the vibe around town.
Then came a two-week shelter-in-place policy on campus in September and temporary suspension of in-person classes in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases. Kamrowski said there was a drop in orders going to the university during the clampdown.
There were 191 positive COVID-19 tests on campus from Aug. 26-Oct. 8, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Back to school
UWRF resumed in-person classes starting Oct. 5, along with mandatory COVID-19 testing every two weeks for students living in dorms and a renewed call to heed health and safety recommendations.
“We realize this is not the ideal experience — having to refrain from some of the things college students look forward to, the parties, the gatherings with friends,” Interim Chancellor Connie Foster said in a news release. “COVID is a real threat to the health of our campus and the community around us. Students can make a very big difference through small personal sacrifices.”
There was some activity to be seen around sunset Oct. 9 along Cascade Avenue and in the neighborhood surrounding the university, with students enjoying the pleasant fall weather and temperatures in the 70s.
It would have been a perfect evening for the River Falls High School varsity football team, but Friday night’s game in Menomonie and another away game Oct. 16 in New Richmond were postponed because a member of the Wildcat coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19.
The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference cancelled some fall sports seasons entirely.
Just more signs of the times on a Friday night in a college town during a pandemic.