On Wednesday night in the heart of downtown Platteville, Wisconsin, just hours after the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out the state’s stay-at-home order, Nick’s on 2nd was packed wall to wall, standing room only.
45 minutes after the bars open in Wisconsin…. pic.twitter.com/xqaDlS6ajP
— Nick's bar (@nicksonsec) May 14, 2020
It was sometime after 10 p.m. when “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by The Hollies came over the loud speaker and a bartender took out his camera. In a Twitter broadcast, he surveyed the room of maskless patrons crammed together, partying like it was 2019. A few were pounding on the bar to the beat. Some were clapping their hands in the air and some were fist-pumping, a scene so joyous they could have been celebrating the end of the worst pandemic in a century.
Instead, as Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers knew, they were just celebrating the apparent end of his power over them – at least for now.
“We’re the Wild West,” Evers told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on Wednesday night, reacting to the state Supreme Court’s ruling and the scenes of people partying in bars all across Wisconsin. “There are no restrictions at all across the state of Wisconsin. . . . So at this point in time . . . there is nothing compelling people to do anything other than having chaos here.”
Chaos it was.
Right after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority issued a 4-3 ruling, invalidating the extension of the stay-at-home order issued by Evers’ appointed state health chief, the Tavern League of Wisconsin instructed its members to feel free to “OPEN IMMEDIATELY!”
With Evers’ statewide orders kaput, local health authorities scrambled to issue city – or countywide – stay-at-home orders, creating a hodgepodge of rules and regulations all across the state that are bound to cause confusion, not to mention some traffic across county lines. It’s a situation unlike any in the United States as the pandemic rages on. But most of all, Evers feared that the court’s order would cause the one thing he was trying to prevent: more death.
Wisconsin has seen more than 10,900 COVID-19 cases and 421 deaths.
“When you have no requirements anymore, that’s a problem,” he said. “We’re just leaving it open. We’re going to have more cases. We’re going to have more deaths. And it’s a sad occasion for the state. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.”
The state’s high court sided Wednesday with Republican legislators who sued the Evers administration in April, finding that the Democratic governor “cannot rely on emergency powers indefinitely” as the pandemic drags on for months. In a concurring opinion, Justice Rebecca Bradley cited Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court allowed the internment of Japanese Americans as a way to “remind the state that urging courts to approve the exercise of extraordinary power during times of emergency may lead to extraordinary abuses of its citizens.”
One conservative justice joined the other two liberals in dissenting.
Republican lawmakers wanted the state legislature to have a say in the drastic public health measures that Evers’ administration, as in other states, have demanded that residents follow. The Supreme Court agreed, believing an unelected state health chief shouldn’t have such sweeping power over millions of people.
But in Wisconsin’s hyperpartisan political environment, it’s unclear how well the Democratic administration will work with the Republican-majority legislature to compromise on public health, a concern Evers shared on Wednesday night. He said as far as he could tell the Republicans didn’t have a plan.
“We have no authority right now,” he said on MSNBC. “It’s been taken away.”
In the hodgepodge of county and city orders, Racine and the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, each issued their own stay-at-home orders that still prohibit bars and restaurants from reopening, save for takeout. Dane County, where Madison is located, and Brown County, home to Green Bay and several meatpacking plants, also issued their own stay-at-home orders.
“Different counties are saying, ‘Bring it on.’ Other counties are saying, ‘No, we don’t want this to happen,'” Evers said. “So suddenly it’s a 72-county affair, which is going to be very confusing to people in the state.
The bar scene was crowded in counties without any health orders to replace Evers’.
At the Iron Hog Saloon in the town of Port Washington, drinks flowed but masks and social distancing were lacking, WISN reported. The owner, Chad Arndt, said he had put more cleaning protocols in place and that if people felt uncomfortable, they didn’t have to come and he would respect that. “I hope they respect my feelings [that] I would like to come out and I would like to start getting the economy going again,” he said.
To one customer, Gary Bertram, it’s a simple decision. “If people want to quarantine, quarantine. If you don’t want to quarantine, don’t quarantine. Go out and do what you normally do,” he told WISN.
It isn’t that simple of course. Public health authorities have repeatedly warned that those who choose to ignore social distancing and go about their lives may end up spreading the disease – to people who aren’t drinking at bars but just visiting a grocery store.
Other bars that reopened tried to take more precautions. At Jake’s Supper Club in Menomonie, Wisconsin, the high tables were spaced farther apart, staff was required to wear face masks and hand sanitizer stations were set up, owner Peter Gruetzmacher told WQOW.
The biggest challenge, he said, will be keeping the regulars at the required distance, two bar stools away, when “they all kind of consider themselves family.”
The Tavern League of Wisconsin still encouraged bars to follow the Wisconsin Economic Development Council’s reopening guidelines, which include making employees wear masks, strengthening sanitation policies and keeping groups of customers six feet away from each other. The organization’s executive director, Peter Madland, told FOX 11 he welcomed the ruling because it helped struggling bars.
“They’re seeing their livelihoods melt away . . . and they were helpless to do anything about it,” Madland said.
Nick’s on 2nd couldn’t immediately be reached for comment early Thursday morning about its policies.
Get Boston.com's e-mail alerts:
Sign up and receive coronavirus news and breaking updates, from our newsroom to your inbox.