Kayla Midthun, who owns Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Eau Claire with her husband Blayne, discusses efforts they have taken to protect customers and employees from COVID-19 as Blayne applies stain to a deck outside the shop Wednesday.
Kayla Midthun, who owns Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Eau Claire with her husband Blayne, discusses efforts they have taken to protect customers and employees from COVID-19 as Blayne applies stain to a deck outside the shop Wednesday. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Banking on a wing and a prayer and some plexiglass.

Blayne Midthun dabbed his paintbrush in a can of stain, then swiped it back and forth across the sides of a wooden patio just outside the Ramone’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Eau Claire he owns and operates with his wife Kayla. 

A short time later he transferred plants he had purchased Wednesday morning from the back of his truck into patio planting spots. Then he and Kayla discussed how they would paint markers on the sidewalk outside their store, reminding customers to maintain social distancing as they waited for their ice cream orders to be delivered from inside. 

That work and more was in preparation for the reopening of Ramone’s, shut down since March 17, when Gov. Tony Evers ordered businesses across Wisconsin closed in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus. For the first time in more than two months, the Midthuns opened their business at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

“It feels good to be open again, good to be able to serve our customers,” Blayne Midthun said 90 minutes before reopening his business. “When businesses were ordered closed, it felt at first like we might not reopen.”

One week after the state Supreme Court overturned the extension of Evers’ safer-at-home order intended to slow the spread of coronavirus, businesses statewide continue to resume operations, with some people eager to return as customers while others remain wary of being infected by a virus that is still clearly on the rampage across Wisconsin.

The Midthuns are among business owners across Wisconsin and the country who are resuming operations after their unprecedented shutdown because of a coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 4.95 million worldwide and killed at least 324,000 people. 

On Wednesday state Department of Health Services figures showed an increase of 528 new positive COVID-19 cases, the largest one-day spike of the illness. Total positive cases in Wisconsin now total 13,413, with 481 deaths. Both Langlade and Taylor Counties reported their first positive cases on Wednesday, giving the virus a clean sweep of being confirmed in all 72 counties.

RELATED: Wisconsin’s Daily Coronavirus Dashboard

Many company owners said they’re eager to reopen and interact with patrons again. Businesses struggled financially during the shutdown, and many said they need to resume operations soon to remain financially viable. 

Wendy Smith and her husband Jason Dix used online sales and other measures to create enough sales to keep their Faith & Giggles Gift shop in Hartford afloat during the shutdown. But in the days after Mother’s Day, they noticed a sharp decline in sales, and were grateful for the ability to reopen their store. 

“Definitely this was good for us financially,” Smith said of reopening. “We did what we could to get creative and generate revenue while the store was closed. But there is no comparison to having your doors open to customers.”

Similarly, business at Travel Leaders, a Chippewa Falls company that sells vacation packages, was hard hit by the COVID-19-induced shutdown, company owner Dennis Heyde said. The business has resumed operations Monday through Friday, he said, and hopes for an upturn in sales soon. 

“We only hope we are on the downside of this event,” Heyde said.

Businesses face different regulations as they reopen. Some Wisconsin communities issued their own orders similar to safer-at-home after the Supreme Court decision, but most have rescinded them amid doubts about whether they would withstand legal challenge. A few other communities, such as Eau Claire County and the city of Milwaukee, have issued rules local businesses must abide by. Those orders are scheduled to expire soon. 

Businesses deemed essential remained open during the safer-at-home order and adopted public safety measures such as social distancing and extra cleaning to enhance customer and employee safety. Now, as other companies reopen their doors, they said they are taking steps intended to do the same. 

For instance, even though his company conducts most of its business through telephone, Heyde said his Travel Leaders office has been outfitted with large plexiglass shields to protect employees and customers from possibly transmitting COVID-19. 

In addition, he said, the business is exceeding the 6-foot social distancing recommendation by public health officials and has masks available for customers and workers. Disinfectant wipes also are plentiful in the office, he said. 

Other Wisconsin businesses report taking similar steps to provide customers and workers with adequate protection. At The Stagecoach Bar & Grill in Ashland, unrelated customers must maintain two seats between each other and are doing what they can to maintain social distancing. Tables and counters are cleaned frequently, employees said, and the business is limiting capacity to 25 people at a time. 

Others have been less cautious about restarting. Facebook posts and other reports show taverns and some other businesses packed with people in close proximity, with few wearing masks. Many people report entering businesses not following social distancing guidelines and where customers and workers lack masks. 

“I think concerns about COVID-19 are overblown,” La Crosse resident Tom Lockhart said. “At some point we have to get back to our lives and let these businesses begin operating again.”

However, some people said they are reluctant to return to stores just yet, especially as COVID-19 continues to be present in communities. 

“I don’t feel confident going in stores yet,” 66-year-old Eau Claire resident George Utphall said. “I wear a mask in public, but I don’t see many others (doing that),” he said. “I think we’re a ways away from (attending public functions) being very safe.” 

The Midthuns have delayed their opening to make sure they are meeting protocols to ensure healthy conditions, they said. Those include not allowing customers into their small store, they said, but instead taking orders and delivering to customers waiting outside while maintaining social distancing. 

“There is no user’s manual for this,” Kayla Midthun said. “There is no clearly defined way to go. We are working with the health department, making sure we are doing this as safely as possible.”