MILWAUKEE - Milwaukee music venues prepare to open their doors 15 months after the live music stopped. The change comes after Mayor Tom Barrett announced the city is getting rid of COVID restrictions while keeping the mask ordinance on the books.
The Cactus Club in Bay View has not had a show since March 2020. For now, the owners have re-invented their space, setting up outdoor seating and serving drinks out the door. The owner has also been renting out the green room apartment on Airbnb.
Cactus Club, Milwaukee
The stage at the venue once welcomed bands like the White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age – and soon will host more bands.
Milwaukee's COVID-19 capacity and spacing restrictions will go away on June 15 – instead becoming recommendations. That means shows will come back to the stage this summer.
"It’s really exciting, it’s a green light that we can begin hosting shows, but at the same time, we’re trying to be cautious and vigilant of what other venues are doing and best practices. We can’t guarantee anyone’s safety," said Kelsey Kaufmann, Cactus Club owner. "If someone would have told me it would have been 15 months of being closed, it would have melted my mind."
A similar story is being told at the Story Hill Firehouse.
"It’s scary to think of how close you are to losing something because we never thought we’d go through something like this in my lifetime," said Janelle Meyer-Brown, owner of Story Hill FireHouse.
Story Hill FireHouse, Milwaukee
Meyer-Brown transformed the old firehouse which dates to 1927. She was ready to start hosting weddings in March 2020 – right when the state shut down. Because Milwaukee ordinance still requires masks, unlike much of the state, Meyer-Brown said that means brides are moving their nuptials to the suburbs.
"So that’s exciting that they are allowing it to open up again. But when they still mandate the mask, inside during a wedding, dancing with a mask, brides don’t want to do it. They don’t want to walk down the aisle wearing a mask," Meyer-Brown said. "If I’m going to keep losing business because of the masks, or because of the rules, that’s what’s hard, because I could lose this building, and we’ve put a lot of work and money into this building."
The city's mask requirement is an ordinance which means it will take a process to update it. Milwaukee Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic said she sees it continuing indoors as they make decisions based on data. If city leaders see a major increase in vaccinations, that would make a huge difference, she said.
By the numbers
The Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) released on Friday, May 14 an update on the public health and safety order "Moving Milwaukee Forward" related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order, in Phase 6, features three COVID-19 gating criteria on a color-coded scale: rate of cases per 100,000 over seven days; percentage test positivity over seven days; city adult vaccination rate.
Over the past week, the Milwaukee Health Department reported improving trends in both the seven-day rate of cases and the percentage of positive tests.
The health department reported a "substantial transmission" rate of cases per 100,000 -- now 80.3 down from 110.6. The criterion was downgraded from RED to ORANGE designation.
MHD also reported a drop in positivity from 5.2% to 4% over the past week, considered "low transmission." The criterion was downgraded from YELLOW to BLUE designation.
Adult vaccinations increased 3% -- now 38.2% compared to 35.2% the previous week.
"We have reached an important stage in the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson. "I don’t think of this next step as reverting ‘back to normal,’ but rather moving forward in our city’s recovery. The framework that the health department put in place 14 months ago along with the work the community has done to stay safe got us to this point."
Johnson says they'll continue to monitor the situation and determine if additional protective measures are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
UPDATE: Since this story was published, the city decided to remove the "Moving Milwaukee Forward" health orders, thus also eliminating the mask ordinace. That means all of the city's mandated COVID-19 restrictions are set to expire on June 1, when requirements will turn into recommendations.