'It's surreal:' Sturtevant, Whitefish Bay retailers thrilled to reopen, noting, 'we have to be cautious'

STURTEVANT -- Gov. Tony Evers on Monday, May 11 allowed nearly all nonessential retail stores to reopen as long as they serve no more than five customers at a time, partially lifting the restriction that has kept them closed for weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It was welcome news at the old Sturtevant school-turned School Days Antique Mall. For a business model that relies on relics of a time past, the past month and a half has been one for the ages for owner Karin Helbling.

"It's like, surreal, I want to say," she said. "We went from such a wonderful February to nothing in a day, couple days, and it just kept getting less and less people, so we even closed before the weekend because we thought they were afraid. They weren't coming anymore."

Karin Helbling

But as soon as Helbing heard the news Monday...

"We never put a sale sign up so fast in the front of the building on Highway 11," she said.

It was an effort to make up for lost time -- and money -- even if for just a couple hours Monday.

The order, issued by Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm at Evers' direction, strongly encourages all shoppers and store workers to wear masks, but does not require it. Everyone in the store must maintain a 6-foot distance from one another.

With 28,000 square feet of space in Sturtevant...

"We have a lot of room to fill up," Helbling said. "We are full. We are ready to go!"

Tom Harris

Safety precautions were top of mind Monday for Whitefish Bay frame and art gallery owner Tom Harris.

"If this is going to become the new norm, we have to set our businesses up," said Harris. "I've been in it for 27 years. I need to be here for another 27 years."

Allowing the smaller retail stores to open will revive about 90,000 jobs in 14,000 businesses, said Missy Hughes, secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. More than half a million people have filed for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin since mid-March.

"I'm excited for some things to open up again, but yet I know that you have to be safe, we have to be cautious -- and we can't rush this," Harris said.

The order applies to retail stores, but not businesses providing services like hair dressers, nail salons and barbers. Bars and restaurants would also still only be allowed to offer pick-up or delivery. Evers said given the restriction on the number of customers, he didn't think larger nonessential retail stores would choose to open, even though they could.