Brew City Kayak owner Michael Fischer is gearing up for a season that won't be anything like the past 10 he's been in business.
The downtown Milwaukee kayak and stand-up paddleboard rental and tour company is set to open on Saturday, thanks to recently relaxed restrictions on nonessential businesses-- and a local weather forecast of nearly 70 degrees and sunny.
Fischer, who founded Gravity Trailsin 2010 in Door County and has since expanded to New Orleans, Austin and Milwaukee, has spent the past six weeks working out plans to safely operate his kayak rental and tour businesses under the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.
"Things will never be the way they were before this and so, as a business owner, you really have to figure out a new way to move forward into the future just so you can conduct business in a very safe manner and really be proactive," said Fischer.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers earlier this week announced a new order allowing outdoor recreational rentals, such as boats, golf carts, kayaks and ATVs, as well as curbside drop-off service for dog groomers, small engine repair shops, upholstery businesses and self-service car washes. Under the order, businesses must operate free of contact with customers by providing payment options online or over the phone and enact disinfecting practices.
A water recreation company, Brew City Kayak's main priority has always been safety, he said, but water temperature and wind direction are no longer the only concerns. The company is now focused on reducing almost all customer interaction and bolstering existing sanitation protocols.
As part of the company's new safety measures, bookings can only be made online through Brew City Kayak's website-- the same goes for signing waivers.
Upon arrival at Brew City's port, which is located at The Cooperage site in the Harbor View neighborhood, customers are instructed to remain in their vehicles until their kayaks are ready for launch, wear masks when interacting with staff, and maintain a six-foot distance between others on and off the water. Tours, which have been delayed until Memorial Day weekend, will be reduced in size from 12 to six people.
Brew City's staff, who will wear masks at all times, will wipe down all kayaks, paddles and life jackets before and after each use. Plenty of hand sanitizer, sourced from local distilleries, will be available for customers and employees, said Fischer.
In addition, the company has removed its 24-hour cancellation policy and will offer full refunds in an effort to encourage customers to stay at home if they feel sick.
Brew City's COVID-19 protocols are clearly posted on its website so customers "can feel safe and know that we're being proactive," said Fischer.
He expects business in Milwaukee this season to be busier than usual as leisure activities remain limited due to COVID-19, and even when restaurants, movie theaters, museums and sports stadiums reopen in the coming months, outdoor activities could be seen as safer alternatives.
"People are looking for something safe to do," he said. "I don't think a lot of people feel safe going indoors, but they do feel a sense of safety being outdoors in nature or on the river where there's a lot of room and not a lot of people."
Fischer said he's been getting calls for the past three weeks from local customers eager to get out of the house and on to the water. Typically, Brew City Kayak's season opening is Memorial Day weekend, so the season is already getting a bit of an early start.
Meanwhile, Lone Star Kayak Tours in Austin and New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours are both taking a hit, having been totally shut down since March.
In the first three weeks of New Orleans' shutdown, the business lost $50,000 to $60,000 in refunds in addition to the estimated $240,000 it would have grossed between March and April, two of the biggest months of the season, said Fischer.
Austin's season usually starts a bit later so the loss hasn't been as steep, especially with a May 1 reopening now in sight, he said.
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