The coronavirus

Public health crisis sends shockwaves through economy

On March 9, Wisconsin Department of Health Services officials said there was only one confirmed case of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the state.

Ten days later, on March 19, that number had climbed to 155 confirmed cases in the state, and Gov. Tony Evers announced that the first Wisconsinites had died from the virus. The number of positive cases in the state reached 416 on March 23, including five deaths.

After seeing the devasting effects that the highly contagious virus has had on China, Italy and other countries, its impact is now being felt dramatically in the United States. For many Americans, life seemed to change overnight in mid-March, first with the cancellation of major large-crowd events and then with federal, state and local officials first encouraging and then mandating social distancing measures in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” to slow the spread of the virus and reduce the anticipated heavy burden it would place on the nation’s health care system.

The social distancing measures are so dramatic they have effectively shut down much of the nation’s economy. On March 17, Gov. Tony Evers banned gatherings of 10 or more people. The order made exceptions for transportation, educational institutions, child care, hotels, military, law enforcement, food pantries, hospitals, long-term care facilities, grocery stores and convenience stores, utility facilities, job centers and courts.

One week later, Evers issued a “safer-at-home” order, allowing only “essential care or services” workers to continue to travel to and from work.

The social distancing requirements locally and across the nation have had a devasting economic impact. The stock market plunged into bear territory with losses on the Dow Jones Industrial Average so severe that all of the gains it had made during Donald Trump’s presidency were wiped out.

Restaurants and bars can only offer take-out or delivery. Several local restaurants have tried to adapt, while bars suffered greatly from the loss of St. Patrick’s Day business.

After a few days, one of Milwaukee’s most iconic restaurant brands, The Bartolotta Restaurants, decided to cease its curbside takeout service and halted its operations “until further notice,” co-founder Paul Bartolotta said. The Bartolotta Restaurants employs more than 950 people and has 10 restaurants in the Milwaukee area.

“We pledged to transition our restaurants to curbside service in order to provide food for our guests and in doing so allowing us to provide family meals for our employees,” Bartolotta said. “We have quickly realized it would not be enough to ‘flatten the community spread curve.’ That is why I have made the painful and difficult decision to cease operations, including curbside service, at all Bartolotta Restaurants … until further notice.”

The coronavirus has had a profound effect on retailers. Grocery stores have seen a surge of business as shoppers sought to stock up on food and other essentials, including toilet paper. During the rush, the state received dozens of price-gouging complaints, including several against Eau Claire-based Menard Inc.

But other retailers have struggled as in-store traffic waned with shoppers staying home to follow social distancing requests. Several stores closed, hopefully only temporarily. Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s closed all of its 1,100 stores until April. The company also recently said it has fully drawn its $1 billion unsecured credit facility to increase its cash position and preserve financial flexibility during the coronavirus outbreak.

The coronavirus also affected some manufacturing operations. Milwaukee-based Douglas Dynamics closed its U.S. operations from March 18-29. Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson temporarily suspended production at its three U.S. manufacturing facilities after an employee at its Menomonee Falls plant tested positive for COVID-19.

Many employers have kept their businesses going with employees working from home, using internet connections, their phones and video conferencing to stay productive. In mid-March, Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects said it asked employees to work from home for the next two weeks “out of an abundance of caution.”

“We are encouraged that significant action is being taken by many organizations to reduce the possible impact of this virus, and we want to do all we can to help reduce this impact as well,” said Rich Tennessen, president of EUA.
Social distancing requirements have completely shut down the sports and entertainment industry. Marcus Theatres shut down its movie theaters temporarily. The Milwaukee County Zoo and the city’s museums closed. The start of the Milwaukee Brewers season has been delayed. The Milwaukee Bucks, leading the NBA in wins and hoping to win their first championship since 1971, had their season suspended indefinitely.

Planning for the Democratic National Convention, to be held in July in Milwaukee, continues with hopes that it will still be held as planned. The event is expected to have a $200 million economic impact on the Milwaukee region and was considered a game-changing opportunity for the city’s image. But now, it is very much in doubt.

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.