Milwaukee mask mandate poses challenge to restaurants, bars; study found most were compliant

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and city health officials held a virtual meeting with some business owners on Tuesday, July 14 to discuss what needs to be done at restaurants and bars to beat COVID-19.

The meeting was designed to help business owners who are struggling to keep people safe while keeping business going; you can't eat or drink while wearing a mask.

"Most people do not wear masks while eating or in the restaurant," said Jack Holt with Point Restaurants.

Beginning Thursday, July 16, a mask will be required to enter any Milwaukee restaurant, but once you take a seat -- whether outdoors or inside -- you may be able to put your mask away. At AJ Bombers, staff and customers are required to wear a mask while dining indoors since it reopening in May.

"Now, I think a lot of people are getting a bit more used to it," said Jim Anderson with AJ Bombers. "The health and safety of our guests is number one."

Some Milwaukee-area restaurant owners ask that patrons use their masks as much as possible -- for their safety and the safety of other patrons. In Tuesday's webinar, participants discussed how to move the city forward in the pandemic fight after a rise in cases.

"This industry has been hit, one of the hardest, if not the hardest," Barrett said.


According to the ordinance, diners will be allowed to take off their mask once they get to their table. Those involved in Tuesday's meeting said it's a good idea to keep your mask on while interacting with your server, and when your server is a good distance away you can take your mask off and enjoy your food.

The Milwaukee Health Department shared a study it did over the weekend. Workers went to 94 city bars and restaurants, four of which they found to be not in compliance with local health guidelines -- including a capacity limit of 50%.

"It's showing us that operators are taking this seriously, that they are being responsible, they're caring about what's going on in their establishment," said Claire Evers with the Milwaukee Health Department.

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said half of the association's members are not happy with the ordinance, but will comply.

"Whether they agree with masks or not agree with masks, it's something that is required in the City of Milwaukee," Hillmer said. "They want their business to survive, and so of course they will comply."

Failure to comply with the ordinance will be enforced by the Milwaukee Health Department, with fines of $50 to $500 targeting businesses; the chance to lose license to be shut down is also a possibility.

City officials said it will be up to the establishments themselves to enforce the use of masks or risk having to pay a fine. Some owners are brainstorming how to handle any customers who may not comply or are unable to wear masks for personal health reasons.

"I don't want to be in the position where I'm being disrespectful in any way to a potential client that I desperately need, or even being insensitive to their reality," Paul Bartolotta, chef and co-owner with The Bartolotta Restaurants, said. "Herein lies the ongoing, everyday questions that we're struggling with because we're hospitable people."

The Wisconsin Restaurant Association suggests calling establishments in advance if you have questions.

Barrett signed the city's mask mandate on Tuesday, set to take effect Thursday. The mandate requires everyone ages 3 or older to wear masks inside public spaces and outside within 6 feet of non-family/household members.