NBA Season Suspension Deadens Milwaukee’s Lively Deer District
Taylor Kaboord, a pharmacy student at Concordia University in Mequon, walks with his mother Thursday in Milwaukee's Deer District, home to the Milwaukee Bucks' Fiserv Forum. The usually lively entertainment district is dead in the wake of the NBA suspending the rest of the season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The 53-12 Milwaukee Bucks seemed unstoppable this year. Then coronavirus happened. 

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, business was going fine for Carson’s Prime Steaks and Famous Barbecue. But when the NBA indefinitely suspended its season on Wednesday after a player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19, Carson’s customers started canceling their dinner reservations in droves. 

Overnight, reservations halved for Carson’s, which is located about 100 yards from the front door to the Milwaukee Bucks’ home, Fiserv Forum.

“It’ll be substantial for us,” Michael Bilton, a supervisor with the restaurant’s parent company, Chicago-based Carson’s Ribs, said Thursday. 

Restaurants and bars like Carson’s are bracing for an inevitable drop in revenue from the season’s suspension. Just a couple days ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were flying high as one of the two teams to beat in the NBA, just behind the Los Angeles Lakers as favorites to win it all in June. Milwaukee’s brand-new, shiny Deer District was buzzing with activity.

But now Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. are grounded and the Deer District streets are quiet. 

Nearby businesses reliant on the draw of Bucks games or concerts at the Fiserv Forum will suddenly have to work through a global pandemic that has poisoned the district’s lifeblood.

As universities canceled classes, Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency, and President Donald Trump instituted a European travel ban, the Fiserv Forum moved to postpone upcoming concerts. No one answered the phone at the arena Thursday, and the voicemail said the arena was closed.

One person walks past the usually busy Fiserv Forum on Thursday in Milwaukee. After the NBA suspended the rest of its season, the Milwaukee Bucks’ home entertainment district has fallen silent. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

It’s not yet clear what further ramifications the pandemic will have on the Deer District. Officials with the state Department of Health Services in a Thursday press conference recommended the cancellation of any public gathering with more than 250 attendees. Bucks Communications Director Barry Baum declined to comment when asked if the 18,000-seat forum planned to cancel all of its upcoming events.

“It’s a fluid situation, and we are still gathering information,” Baum wrote in an email.

A Bucks game was scheduled for Thursday, but when the season was suspended, reservation cancellations came quickly. The restaurant’s bookings went down by half overnight, Bilton said. Before the season suspension, business hadn’t made any noticeable decline, he added.

Carson’s currently has no plans to change hours or cut staff, Bilton said.

“We’re taking it as it goes,” he said. “We’re taking every precaution inside the restaurant.”

Enrique Savas, the morning manager of Brick 3 Pizza, located on North Old World Third Street just steps from the forum, said the business is bracing for fewer customers but currently has no plans to change hours. 

The district was uncharacteristically quiet. Apart from one opportunistic skateboarder on Herb Kohl Way (whom security removed), there was hardly anyone walking around Thursday afternoon. Taylor Kaboord, a pharmacy student at Concordia University in Mequon, was found strolling with his mother through the nearly empty plaza. 

The two had planned to attend the night’s Bucks game. No dice, but at least the two could enjoy the unusually quiet surroundings.

“Everyone else is home, so hopefully they kept (the virus) contained,” Kaboord joked.

While he was disappointed the game was canceled, he acknowledged that the league suspending all further matches was “a smart idea.”

For hourly workers in the Deer District, though, there have been no assurances that the Bucks will pay for lost hours, said Peter Rickman, executive director of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, or MASH. The union represents 1,000 employees.

“The Bucks need to take responsibility for what’s happened to workers here through no fault of their own,” Rickman said. “We are calling on them to do so.”

Rickman added that all NBA teams should be doing the same for the hourly workers at their arenas, and that federal, state, county, and local-level governments should create a relief fund for workers losing out on pay during health emergencies.

“You can’t tell me that we can’t find millions, billions of dollars to bailout service workers at this moment in time,” he said.