EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Manager Angela Fort takes calls for take-out food at Pearl Eatery-Drinkery. The Menominee restaurant continues to remain open during the COVID-19 crisis, serving a limited version of its Cajun menu for customers via curbside pickup. People can check out the menu on the Pearl’s Facebook page and call ahead to order. 
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Manager Angela Fort takes calls for take-out food at Pearl Eatery-Drinkery. The Menominee restaurant continues to remain open during the COVID-19 crisis, serving a limited version of its Cajun menu for customers via curbside pickup. People can check out the menu on the Pearl’s Facebook page and call ahead to order. 

MARINETTE — Sometimes, the news can dampen the soul, and make reality feel harsh. 

COVID-19 established its unequivocal presence across the nation one week ago as national, state and local governments began taking unprecedented measures to stem the spread of the illness. At a press conference Monday, President Donald Trump painted a broad picture of the tough obstacles confronting millions of employees in the weeks to come as they struggle with the fallout. 

“We have millions and millions of jobs that were solid as a rock three weeks ago, and today there could be questions,” he said. “And the faster we get (the economy) going there is more likely it is that those stores, little businesses, big businesses, medium-size businesses open up.”

The cities of Marinette and Menominee are no exceptions to those consequences as restaurants, bars, grocery stores, retail stores and the gamut of local businesses grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 public health emergency in some form or another. 

However, in the eyes of some local businesses, for those struggling, temporary solutions can be found; and while the light at the end of the tunnel might seem faint, at least it awaits. 

“This situation highlights for me how important it is that we put a focus on what we can do and what people are working hard to get done. And (it highlights) the community that we are still trying to keep it together,” said Kim Brooks, owner of Main Street Antique Mall in Marinette and a small business advocate in the area. 

SEVERITY HITS MARINETTE

For some of the first, and directly impacted area businesses, like Hometown Family Restaurant in Marinette, the world changed radically on March 17 when Gov. Tony Evers issued a moratorium on all gatherings of over 50 people. It allowed restaurants to remain open under the stipulation that such facilities operate at 50% capacity or no more than 50 people — whatever was less. Then about 24 hours later, Emergency Order No. 5 tightened those restrictions limiting gatherings to 10 or less with a 6-foot social distancing component added. 

According to Joe Stark, owner of Hometown, the mandates drastically limited business for the restaurant and forced the establishment to eliminate all dine-in activity and reshuffle its priorities to curbside pickup and delivery only. In addition, it obliged them to limit hours of operation. Stark estimated it reduced the restaurant’s business to only about one-sixth of normal. 

Stark also owns Wayne’s Family Restaurant in Oconto, and the mandates and the repercussions resonated drastically at both locations. 

“Personally it is gut-wrenching for me to have to stand in front of a room of 25 people and tell them we have to shut down,” Stark said.

His feelings emerged from the recent and still raw task of informing his employees at Wayne’s that, in lieu of the pandemic’s consequences, he would be closing the Oconto establishment for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. 

In Marinette, the impact came with slightly less severity at Hometown. It managed to maintain some level of service by shifting all business to curbside pick and delivery. However, the after-effects of the new mandates felt no less significant to employees and customers. Already on Monday, the signs of those after-effects had reached Stark as the list of unemployment applicants grew. 

“Between Hometown and Wayne’s Family Restaurant we have over 60 people that are going to be collecting unemployment,” Stark said. “It’s my employees and our customers that I feel for.”

Various economic metrics and indicators show that the entire state bears the same tribulations when it comes to workforce impacts. The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development reported the number of unemployment applications filed on Monday (in just one day) hit 21,250 in the state. The same day last year unemployment application for the day only reached 1,412. 

Additionally, Stark pointed out that a large portion of Hometown’s customers represents longtime regulars who often rely on the daily service, sustenance and socialization at the restaurant.

“We are literally staying open so that we know all of our elderly people have food every day,” he said. “And that is about 90% of our business.” 

MENOMINEE FEELS THE PAIN

Across the river, the story unfolds in much the same way for Menominee where manager Angela Fort and owner Tina Fort, the daughter and mother-in-law team, respectively, endeavor to maintain some availability of their popular Cajun-inspired menu options at Pearl Eatery-Drinkery during the crisis. 

Angela, the manager at Pearl, echoed a similar situation to Stark’s Hometown Family Restaurant. She said the eatery’s business had dropped to about one-sixth of normal and that she and Tina made the difficult decision to furlough all their employees until the crisis passes. However, she also acknowledged the priorities that her employees would need to address for their own survival.    

“We are hoping they can come back, unless they find something else,” Angela said. “We hate to lose anyone but we completely understand that they have to do what they have to do in this time.” 

And for Angela, the biggest fear stems from that uncertainty of a future tied to the aftermath of the pandemic. Even in normal times, the challenges of running a restaurant can task the pressure valves on anyone’s stress levels, as well as on the finances. But now, under the restrictions and burdens imposed by what amounts to a microscopic piece of genetic code enclosed in a protective coating (aka a virus), the challenges of the food service business are suddenly multiplied.  

“This is a family-owned business and we are taking a huge hit with this (COVID-19 situation),” she said. “The unknown is scary.”

THE EYES OF OPTIMISM

Despite the uncertainties and fears that resonate throughout the area, workers and business owners in both cities continue to express optimism and confidence that the world will eventually emerge from under the shadow of COVID-19. 

“But we are not in this alone, everybody is in this together … You just have to stay positive and strong. You don’t want to lose that positivity because then ... what do you have?” said a 50-year employee (who requested that her name not be used) at the Hometown establishment, which began its life as an A&W Restaurant and remained so until 1993 when it became Hometown.

In Menominee, at Pearl, Angela agreed and pointed out the tremendous network of support.

“This is a rough business and (COVID-19) is making it rougher,” she said. “But there are tons of people in the community that are here for us and who want to support us … we just have to hang in there.”

Brooks encouraged businesses to step outside of those functions to which they are normally accustomed. She hopes to see creative solutions that help them stay afloat while also helping keep the local economy pulsing.  

“We have to think about what comes next,” Brooks said. “We have to think about how we use this time to come up with a plan for what comes next.”