COVID-19 threatens big year for Milwaukee sports, tourism

Last updated on April 28th, 2020 at 02:35 pm

2020 was supposed to be Milwaukee’s time to shine. Now, just three months in to what could have been a hugely pivotal year for local sports, tourism and events, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a screeching halt.

Social distancing measures have been put in place, people in several states have been put on stay-in-place orders, schools and businesses have closed, and large gatherings and national-scale events have been canceled or postponed. All in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Milwaukee is bracing itself for a very different year than it anticipated.

Organizers say the Democratic National Convention remains on track to take place in July in downtown Milwaukee, but it is hard not to wonder how the event might be different or if it will happen at all.

Planning and preparation has been underway for more than a year for what would be the largest event in city history, potentially bringing 50,000 visitors and an estimated $200 million in economic impact.

“While we continue to closely monitor this fluid situation, the Democratic National Convention Committee will remain focused on planning a safe and successful convention in Milwaukee four months from now,” Joe Solmonese, chief executive officer of the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee said in a recent statement. “As we prepare these plans, we will remain in constant communication with the local, state and federal officials responsible for protecting public health and security, and will continue to follow their guidance as we move forward.”

Possible alternative formats, including moving the convention to an online event, would require changing party rules, said Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez in a March 9 interview with “Axios on HBO.”

“We’re not contemplating rules changes,” Perez said, adding he’s confident the party can pull it off.

As several professional golf tournaments, including The Masters and PGA Championship, have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Ryder Cup, slated to be held at Whistling Straits in Sheboygan County in late September, remains on schedule, for now.

Other pro and college sports leagues had to make tough decisions earlier this month as the coronavirus spread and public fear escalated. 

In the heat of another historic year, the Milwaukee Bucks were on the road to the playoffs, leading the league with a 53-12 record when the NBA  suspended its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus.

A wave of sports delays followed the NBA’s March 11 announcement, including the start of Major League Baseball’s upcoming season. The Milwaukee Brewers’ Opening Day was scheduled for March 26.

Initially, the NBA’s suspension was set for at least 30 days, but it looks like the hiatus could potentially last until mid-to-late June, according to a March 18 report by ESPN.

With the Bucks’ six remaining regular season home games postponed, as well as several March and April concerts – including Blake Shelton, Elton John and GospelFest – Fiserv Forum sits empty for now. The arena’s event calendar is typically packed, operating under the mantra “no dark days.”

The Bucks declined to comment on what an empty arena means for the team and franchise.

For nearby bars and restaurants that thrive off the arena’s business, the impact is crippling.

Milwaukee-based craft brewer Good City Brewing LLC closed its downtown taproom shortly after finding out about the NBA season suspension.

All bar and restaurants across the state have since closed to the public under state order, limiting operations to carryout and delivery only.

As a tenant of the Bucks-owned Entertainment Block adjacent to Fiserv Forum, Good City’s 11,000-square-foot facility relies on the arena for half its business. And depending on the day of the week, a home game can bring 500 to 1,000 people into the venue in one night, said co-founder and chief executive officer Dan Katt.

“If you have a lakefront property and all of a sudden the lake is drained, that’s a problem; it’s not going to have the same value,” Katt said. “What is driving a lot of the value for restaurants and bars on the west side of downtown is the arena.”

Punch Bowl Social also closed its location near Fiserv Forum, temporarily, and laid off 91 employees.

Meanwhile, Travel Wisconsin said the U.S. Travel Association recently released a report predicting tourism will be one of the hardest hit industries as a result of COVID-19, estimating a 31% decrease nationwide in tourism spending in 2020.

Keeping the DNC, as well as Summerfest, on the calendar could be key to Milwaukee bouncing back faster than other cities, said Peggy Williams-Smith, chief executive officer of VISIT Milwaukee. Summerfest has been postponed until September.

In the meantime, VISIT is pleading with organizers of other conventions booked in Milwaukee not to cancel, but to postpone.

“We’re trying to stop the bleeding,” she said, later raising concerns about area hotels and service industry employees who now stand on shaky ground.

She said the North American hotel industry enjoyed an upwards of 65% to 70% occupancy in the first two months of 2020. The latest STR hotel performance intelligence report has industry officials forecasting less than 10% occupancy through the end of May due to uncertainty.

“If anything, this proves how important the tourism industry is. We support 52,000 hospitality jobs in Milwaukee County,” Williams-Smith said. “We provide the opportunity for the hospitality industry to provide life-sustaining wages to the people they employ and that’s why this is so devastating.”

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.