For the first time in more than a decade, the Minocqua Brewing Company is closed for the season. Owner Kirk Bangstad says he feels like the pandemic has put him in an impossible position.
"You shouldn't have to make a choice between your livelihood and keeping people safe," said Bangstad, who is also the Democratic candidate for the 34th Assembly District.
Bangstad was part of a virtual event Thursday hosted by the Joe Biden presidential campaign that highlighted the economic challenges faced by Wisconsin breweries. Brewery owners, along with Democratic state Sen. Patty Schachtner and state senate candidate Brad Pfaff, faulted President Donald Trump's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic for forcing businesses into such decisions.
The lack of a strong, consistent government response "left every business to try to figure this out on their own without any real guidance," said Justin Terbeest, CEO of Hop and Barrel Brewing.
Terbeest said Hop and Barrel's Hudson taproom has survived the summer because it was possible for them to offer lots of outdoor seating, which lessens the risk of COVID-19 transmission. That won't be possible for much longer.
"As entrepreneurs, we just have to tough it out and work forward and find a way to make things work," Terbeest said. "But I think you're lying to yourself if you say you're not somewhat terrified of the winter season in the upper Midwest, with all this going on."
Beer is a multi-billion-dollar business in Wisconsin, and a trade group estimated the economic impact of craft breweries at $2.25 billion per year. Because many craft breweries operate on a local scale, relying on taprooms and in-person dining at brewpubs, they've been hit especially hard in the pandemic.
In addition to the president, Bangstad also faulted Republicans in Congress, where a new economic relief bill has stalled, for failing to respond to the needs of small businesses.
In a statement, Trump campaign spokesperson Anna Kelly touted the president's 2017 tax cut as well as the Paycheck Protection Program, which "provided critical relief to over 80,000 small businesses across Wisconsin. Meanwhile," Kelly said, "Biden wants to pass crippling tax hikes that would crush the Badger State economy."
This week Biden unveiled an economic policy plan that includes tax penalties on companies that move jobs overseas.
Bangstad said he's owned the Minocqua Brewing Company for six years. The business first opened in 1997, and was closed for more than a year after a fire in 2004. This is the first time since reopening that it's closed its doors for an extended period of time.
When the pandemic hit in March, Bangstad pivoted the popular Northwoods tourist destination to selling gourmet sandwiches for delivery instead of serving beer and catering to indoor diners. A loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program allowed him to continue to pay his employees while businesses were closed, but sandwich delivery never came close to balancing out the business's losses.
Then, after the state Supreme Court threw out Gov. Tony Evers' "Safer at Home" order in May, Bangstad didn't feel confident that he could open in a way that would be safe for his customers and staff. In June, he decided to reopen, but only for outdoor dining.
"That was a big decision," Bangstad said. "I knew that was going to really hurt my income."
In the summer of 2019, about 50 people worked at Minocqua Brewing Company. This year, Bangstad's staff was less than half that size. He scaled back the brewpub's hours. Revenue for the summer, he estimated, was something like one-third of what it was last year.
Like other seasonal businesses in Wisconsin's tourism centers, many Minocqua businesses make more than 60 percent of their revenue in the summer months.
"If I'm going to stay open all year long, I've got to wallop the summer," Bangstad said.
In late August, Bangstad announced that the restaurant would close for the season Sept. 5. He hopes to reopen in June 2021.
Bangstad said he'll be financially able to weather the offseason. But he still regrets having to lay off staff, including managers who've been with him for years.
"I'd love for them to come back (next year), but I can't expect that," he said. "I'll have to start over from scratch."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include reference to a fire that caused the Minocqua Brewing Company to close in 2004.