‘We can get back to normal’: Restaurants, bars navigate post-pandemic restriction landscape

MADISON, Wis. – For business owners, the pandemic was like the Wild West.

“I mean, it’s all territory no one could have planned for,” said Peter McElvanna, owner of The Coopers Tavern.

It’s been a crazy year,” Cask & Ale Owner Ken Boll said. “The ups and downs of opening and closing and opening and closing.”

Now as cases decline, vaccinations rise and restrictions loosen, the landscape is changing.

“It seems like there’s more liveliness to State Street,” Boll said. “We can get back to normal.”

Dane County’s latest public health order expired Wednesday, removing capacity restrictions and the longstanding mask mandate. Officials gave notice about two weeks ago, saying it gave business owners time to plan their next steps.

That means business owners are navigating a new frontier with leeway from public health officials to craft their own mask policies.

“We’re going to go no masks for fully vaccinated,” Boll said, adding that his staff is fully vaccinated, as well. “If (customers) aren’t fully vaccinated, we would prefer if they would wear a mask just for their own safety and for the safety of others, but we’re not going to be the mask police. I’m not going to ask for cards when they come in. It’s going to be too hard to manage that, I think, so we’re going to hope that everyone is truthful with their vaccination records and go forward from there.”

Throughout the pandemic, Boll said he’s let science lead the way, and he’s happy it’s now pointing down a hopeful path.

“We’re going in the right direction,” he said. “It proves science works.”

A few blocks away on the square, The Coopers Tavern will be returning to normal capacity slowly over the next few weeks.

“We are easing our way back into it,” McElvanna said. “If you go back to 100% right away, it will be too much. The kitchen will be overwhelmed.”

McElvanna said staff members prefer to continue wearing masks.

“Next week we’ll have more tables. The week after then, maybe go back to full capacity. Then depending how the staff feel, we will see if they want to take their masks off,” he said. “We are in no way putting pressure. I’m going to be wearing my mask. I have two children at home.”

Masks are encouraged for customers, and required for those who are unvaccinated.

“I guess about 30% of people who came in had their masks on, but it’s an honor system, so we really have no way of policing that there,” McElvanna said. “But the clientele we have here are all nice enough people here, everything went super smooth sailing.”

Some businesses, such as The Soap Opera on State Street, will continue enforcing masks for all customers to keep immunocompromised visitors and children safe.

As businesses move forward, the pandemic has left behind new challenges.

“We’re facing the same problems everyone across the country is with shortages of staffing,” Boll said.

For some businesses, that’s meant limiting hours. At Cask & Ale, they’re planning to get back to seven days a week as soon as they can.

In the mean time, Boll said it feels good to be moving into more familiar territory.

“Hopefully numbers keep moving in the right direction and we can get past this,” he said.