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Milwaukee Considers Raising Fine To $20K For COVID-19 Violators

Businesses Currently Pay $500 For Not Following Health Department Plan

a bar tender in a mask puts a beer on the table for a customer
Customer Sarah Seefeldt, left, orders a beer at Izzy Hops Swig & Nosh in Milwaukee on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. Angela Major/WPR

Businesses that violate the city of Milwaukee’s COVID-19 health order could be fined up to $20,000, an increase from the city’s current $500 fine.

The Milwaukee Health Department has asked the Milwaukee Common Council to support the increase, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says he supports raising the fine as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to increase in Milwaukee and statewide.

“We have to send a message,” Barrett said. “The next step, other than raising fines, is to close establishments.”

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On Thursday, the city’s Public Safety and Health Committee unanimously approved increasing the fine from $500 to $5,000. The ordinance change would also let fines start accumulating, meaning a business could be penalized up to $20,000 for violating the city’s mask ordinance or social distancing ordinance.

In Milwaukee, restaurants and bars have to submit a safety plan to operate at full capacity. The city caps capacity at restaurants and bars that have not submitted safety plans at 25 percent and limits indoor gatherings to 10 people. Dance floors are not allowed.

Barrett said he is prepared to sign an ordinance increasing the fine, and in coming days he’ll be working with the Common Council to determine what the final sum will be. The council votes on the ordinance Nov. 24.

In late October, the city announced it would stop issuing warning letters to businesses and begin issuing the $500 fines.

Claire Evers, Milwaukee’s deputy commissioner of environmental health, said less than 10 fines have been issued. But the current $500 fine has not been enough to stop some businesses from violating the city’s health orders.

“That’s less than what they would make if they go beyond the capacity limits,” Evers said. “So, if the fine is steeper, maybe that is more incentive to get voluntary compliance.”

As of Friday, roughly 1 in 84 people in Wisconsin was infected with coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health Services. In Milwaukee County, there have been a total of 54,226 COVID-19 cases reported as of Thursday, and 641 people had died from complications from the disease, according to DHS.

Dr. Ben Weston, medical director of the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said more dramatic steps need to be taken to fight the pandemic.

Weston said many of the COVID-19 cases are tied to gatherings such as Halloween festivities, or visits to restaurants, bars and gyms. However, it’s not just large groups responsible for the spread.

“For every large wedding and banquet, there are hundreds of small gatherings where you just have your neighbors over, you just have your in-laws over, you just have your parents over,” Weston said. “Those sorts of things, that’s how a lot of the spread occurs that add up and up to a lot of these cases.”

Omar Shaikh, co-owner of Carnevor steakhouse in Milwaukee and Chairman of Visit Milwaukee, believes the increase in fines for business owners is fair.

“There are a lot of restaurants that are operating their establishments responsibly, but there are some that aren’t,” Shaikh said. “I have always been one to stand up for business, but I can’t stand up for the businesses that don’t want to keep everyone safe, including the public, including the staff that will translate to their families.”

Shaikh said this is more than a warning, because warnings didn’t do much for certain operators, which will hurt all businesses in Milwaukee.

“Hospitalizations are getting near full, and once that happens, we go to a shutdown,” Shaikh said. “Those participating in poorly run establishments are contributing to the spread of the virus, which is ultimately going to get everyone shutdown, including the good operators. I truly believe if you run your establishment right, we can keep everyone safe.”