Looking Back on 2020: How COVID Crushed Wisconsin’s Economy

Looking Back on 2020: How COVID Crushed Wisconsin’s Economy


By Julian Emerson

December 23, 2020

Despite those qualifying for federal and state funds to stay afloat, revenue is down and layoffs common. 

When Howard “Butch” Lehmen learned earlier this month the supper club that bears his name in Rice Lake would be eligible for a $20,000 grant as part of Cornavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Secuirty Act funding, he breathed a sigh of relief, at least for the time being. 

“We certainly do appreciate it,” Lehman told me of the CARES Act funding his restaurant and about 2,000 others that qualified for that money. “It’s a ray of hope.”

That money, a $45 million disbursement statewide, was sorely needed, Lehman and other Wisconsin restaurant owners said. The coronavirus pandemic that shutdown their restaurants for more than two months beginning in the middle of March continues, as does the financial damage to their bottom line, despite more than $200 million in CARES Act funding and additional Paycheck Protection Program dollars and other aid. 

Farmers and other small business owners also have faced significant financial struggles during the pandemic, although federal aid helped keep some in business.

Since restaurants reopened in late May and early June, most have been home to smaller and smaller customer bases. While fast-food restaurants and some other businesses like grocery stores have boomed during the pandemic, most restaurants, taverns, and other small businesses across Wisconsin have experienced tough times. 

Along with the hotel and travel industry, restaurants and bars have been particularly hit hard by the pandemic. According to a Wisconsin Restaurant Association survey released in October, 37% of restaurant owners said they were likely to close within six months without additional federal funding. 

December’s awards will help keep them in business for a while longer, restaurant owners said. But how long remains uncertain, as they have watched the number of people eating and drinking at their establishments dwindle steadily since summer. 

Looking Back on 2020: How COVID Crushed Wisconsin's Economy
Like most restaurants, Lehman’s Supper Club & Lounge in Rice Lake has experienced a significant decline in customers since the coronavirus pandemic surfaced in Wisconsin in March. Owner Harold “Butch” Lehman said business is down more than 50% from normal. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Customer totals at Lehman’s Supper Club & Lounge, which Lehman operates along with his wife Trudy, have declined in recent months, he said, and are less than half of normal. The restaurant that has been a favorite Rice Lake eatery since the 1930s was closed for two weeks recently as COVID-19 cases surged in Barron County. 

It reopened for the Christmas season, but the holiday parties that typically are commonplace at Lehman’s this time of year aren’t happening, and crowds are smaller. Lehman said he has been forced to layoff 70% of his staff. 

Jon Seybold, the co-owner of Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub in downtown Eau Claire, said his business is down substantially as well. The Christmas parties that normally happen daily during December aren’t occurring this year. Like Lehman, he was grateful for the CARES Act grant, calling it “a booster shot for keeping us going.”

Seybold, Lehman, and other restaurant owners are trying to adapt to remain in business. They mandate face masks and have made accommodations to provide extra space between tables to meet social distancing requirements.

Other businesses are making changes to stay in business as well. Just down the street from Houligans, at the Tangled Up In Hue store that sells a variety of locally produced items, owners Erin Klaus and Jamie Kyser expanded the store’s online offerings as a way to remain financially viable after they were forced to close their doors to in-store traffic with the safer-at-home order

The store subsequently reopened, but customer numbers have been down significantly as COVID-19 surged in Eau Claire and across the rest of Wisconsin. 

“We had to find a way to make up for the lost revenue, and growing our online sales was one way we could do that,” Klaus said. 

Like many Wisconsin small businesses, Tangled Up In Hue benefitted from Paycheck Protection Plan funding, as well as “We’re All In” dollars. Without that money, Klaus said, the store might have been shut down. She said she’s grateful for assistance the store has received but said her business and others across Wisconsin are in need of added help as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. 

“Right now, we’re all doing what we can to get by,” Klaus said. 

Looking Back on 2020: How COVID Crushed Wisconsin's Economy
Houligan’s Steak & Seafood Pub co-owner Jon Seybold has been forced to lay off about half of his 30 employees because of significantly decreased revenues as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Photo by Julian Emerson)


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