'A nightmare:' Year after closure, restaurants see 30% drop in sales

Wisconsin bars and restaurants closed exactly one year ago Wednesday, March 17. While they were open for St. Patrick's Day 2021, the coronavirus pandemic has had a "devastating impact."

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s best estimate is that 10% to 15% of the state’s restaurants, as well as bars that serve food, permanently closed.

Life changed on St. Patrick's Day 2020 when Governor Tony Evers ordered bars closed at 5 p.m.

"It was a nightmare, and for me with not knowing what the future would hold, that day is my bread and butter. That day pays my bills that I had gotten from all winter," said JJ McAuliffe, owner of McAuliffe's Pub in Racine.

McAuliffe's Pub

McAuliffe saw friends die during the pandemic and business dry up.

"I was angry back then, but now I understand," said McAuliffe of the St. Patrick's Day shutdown.

A year later comes the hindsight of 2020.

"For a time being, it was a good idea. But this long, it’s time we start opening back up," said patron Cahnrad Cagle.

JJ McAuliffe

JJ McAuliffe

Drinks are being poured once again at McAuliffe's Pub, with some twists -- like limiting occupancy to 50%, and cordoning off where people order.

McAuliffe received a grant from the city, which he says paid three months' worth of bills, and he got some money from the most recent batch of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which he says will help them stay afloat while following occupancy limits.

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During FOX6's day at the pub, the Venmo Challenge Racine surprised McAuliffe with a $3,500 check. 

"We can’t lose these people. They provide such a great service for the public to gather, like today," said the challenge’s Stan Anderson. "I want people like this to stay here, that's why."

So far, he’s handed out $40,000 to Racine businesses.

"It gives you hope and I can’t wait to get out there and start helping even more," said McAuliffe, who got chocked up. "This is like a jump start making me realize how important it is to help people."

$3,500 check presented to McAuliffe's Pub

However, other spots shut down permanently, like the Trysting Place in Menomonee Falls, now selling everything inside, including cups, the ice machine and even the kitchen sink.

Harvard and Brown Universities' "Track the Recovery" estimated 45% fewer Wisconsin leisure and hospitality small businesses were open in March 2021 compared with January 2020.

Harvard and Brown Universities' "Track the Recovery"

The National Restaurant Association says 110,000 of the country’s restaurants and bars were closed by Dec. 1, 2020, either temporarily or permanently.

A National Restaurant Association survey finds Wisconsin restaurants saw a 30% drop in sales from January 2020 to January 2021, and 62% of Wisconsin restaurant operators don’t expect a return to normal for seven months or more.

"The COVID situation has made me a smarter businessman, budget-wise," said McAuliffe.

The National Restaurant Association survey found 13% of Wisconsin restaurant owners said they probably or definitely would be closed within three months without federal relief money. The latest COVID-19 relief package will pump $28.6 billion into restaurants and bars that lost money in 2020. Those companies cannot own more than 20 locations and can’t be publicly traded.

On this one year anniversary of closing time 2020, Wisconsin bars look ahead to happy days.

McAuliffe's Pub

"It’s been a year," said bartender Andrew Swetman, "but hopefully with the vaccines, I hope that that is going to be a good sign of things to come."