‘There’s optimism in the air’: More customers feel safe returning to restaurants, bars

MADISON, Wis. – Spring is in the air – something else, too.

“There’s optimism in the air,” said Peter McElvanna, owner of The Coopers Tavern. “You can feel it.”

It’s a sigh of relief after the pandemic hit restaurant owners hard. McElvanna and his wife have owned The Coopers Tavern on the Capitol Square for nearly 12 years. The last one stands out.

“Obviously last year was the year from hell,” he said.

A new Dane County order went into effect Wednesday, increasing customer capacity to 75% for businesses. That’s up from 50% for restaurants and 25% for bars.

McElvanna and other restaurant owners told New 3 Now that doesn’t mean any big changes. The Coopers Tavern’s size doesn’t allow for more customers with physical distancing requirements still in place.

“With COVID restrictions, we’ve followed it to a T,” McElvanna said. “Until it’s changed, I’m not risking anything.”

Still, he said the loosening restrictions are a sign of progress.

“I’m not saying we’re nearly done with any of this by any means, but you can just see some light at the end of the tunnel, where last year, it was darkness for months, months on end,” McElvanna said. “People are getting vaccinated. It’s just getting better every day.”

The gastropub is looking to hire, as are many restaurants to keep up with the increased flow of customers.

McElvanna said they’re seeing more customers and familiar faces.

“It’s getting fun again,” McElvanna said. “Last year was not fun.”

Conor Maloney and three friends met at The Coopers Tavern to watch a game Wednesday afternoon. They said if they hadn’t been vaccinated, they wouldn’t have been there.

“It’s definitely more sensible to go out now once vaccinated to know you’re not going to carry disease to your family,” Maloney said.

They called their meeting a breath of fresh air.

“I think it’s been a series of months since I’ve seen anyone at this table,” Maloney’s friend, Anthony Cirfe said. “Cheers, guys.”