Since the beginning of the Safer At Home order, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development has received over half a million unemployment claims. So far, the state has paid out almost one billion dollars in benefits, according to the Department.
The economic impact of COVID-19 has also wreaked havoc on municipal and county budgets across the state. On April 29th, to account for the state’s financial losses, Governor Evers ordered all state agencies to cut overall spending by five percent.
“These things are important and we think it’s one of our ways to get to a better place financially. Cutting the operations budgets by five percent is approximately $70 million in savings, which is important for us as a government going forward,” he said.
Now, in an attempt to kickstart the state’s economy, Governor Evers has loosened restrictions on retailers. Yesterday, Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm issued an emergency order allowing standalone and strip-mall stores to reopen .
But, those stores are limited to five customers at a time while maintaining social distancing.
According to Melissa Hughes, CEO and secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the order will put about 90,000 Wisconsinites back to work.
“We have approximately 14,400 small retailers in this state with 20 or less employees. And so, giving the opportunity for these businesses to re-enter into the marketplace brings back about 90,000 jobs,” she says.
The order has drawn criticism from State Republicans, who argue that the measure doesn’t go far enough. State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the order “confusing,” in a press release sent shortly after the Emergency Order was issued.
In the release, Vos wrote, “It’s another day and another confusing emergency order…It’s time to get everyone back to work in every part of the state.”
The order is aimed at helping small businesses, as opposed to larger retailers, Evers told reporters yesterday.
“I don’t speak for Kohl’s corporation, but I can’t imagine them opening their stores for five people,” he said. “All along we’ve been trying to mitigate the transmission of the disease, and one of the ways to do that was to start small.”
Tiffany Olson is the owner of the Madison Greenhouse Store on Williamson Street. While the Greenhouse is an essential business, Olson decided to shut down in-store services and furlough employees at the start of the Safer at Home order. She says the shop is too small to operate while maintaining proper social distance.
Despite Governor Evers loosened restrictions and their status as an essential business, Olson says the greenhouse will remain closed to the public.
“I mean having five people in at a time would certainly help to boost sales a lot and also just save us time. It’s extremely time-consuming to sell people plants and pottery over the phone, but I think stress and time-wise it would be very beneficial to reopen. But then at the same time there’s more stress and work to be done with having to keep up with the sanitation and everything,” she says.
Emma Stepian, Manager of Madison Modern Market on State Street, says the order gives the store some time to gradually reopen to the public.
“You know, on a personal level, even though this was sudden and I feel a bit thrown off and slightly pressured to now have to make these changes very quickly, I’m glad this order was rolled out now rather than on the 26th,” she says. “I did have concerns about a high volume of businesses being able to reopen on the 26th and it being kind of crazy, so I think this is a nice opportunity to be able to fully roll things out, test the waters and get measures into place.”
Peter Bank is the owner of Good Style Shop on East Johnson Street. Bank says that Good Style has pivoted their operations online and will remain closed to the public despite Evers’ order.
Bank says that, while he does support the Governor’s order, it is an imperfect solution.
“Personally, I think it’s kind of a Catch-22, Damocles situation where something has to commence, right? We need to take steps to get people back in stores and keep the economy circulating, and I think this is a cautious first step that works for me because I’m a small retail store of about 1000 square feet as it is. You know, in normal times our capacity is probably about 20 customers,” he says. “Personally, I think it’s a good decision, although imperfect. Something has to start.”