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Some Wisconsin Counties Decide To End The Coronavirus Lockdown

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the first time, a state court has thrown out an order aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. Last night, Wisconsin's Supreme Court agreed with Republican lawmakers and overturned the Democratic governor's stay-at-home order. Now businesses are figuring out what reopening might look like for them. Rob Mentzer with Wisconsin Public Radio has more.

ROB MENTZER, BYLINE: This morning, Matthew Nowacki drove from his home in Duluth, Minn., into Wisconsin so he could do something he hasn't done in a long time - have a beer at a bar.

MATTHEW NOWACKI: After two months on lockdown, it's refreshing to see something open again.

MENTZER: The state's taverns have been closed to all but curbside or carry-out service since March 17. But when the controversial ruling took effect immediately last night, many bars in the state opened right away. Nowacki says he's glad to see businesses in his neighboring state reopen.

NOWACKI: Just being free, being able to be an adult and choose your own choices.

MENTZER: But many Wisconsinites disagree. Opinion polling shows large majorities support the state's stay-home order. In the last two weeks, the percentage of positive coronavirus infections here has declined among those tested. Public health officials and Democratic Governor Tony Evers say opening businesses up too quickly could risk reversing that progress in places like Superior, a far northern city that has not had high infection rates.

TINA BREIMON: I mean, I've had a couple of phone calls on my personal phone already this morning saying, are you guys open? Yep.

MENTZER: Tina Breimon bartends at Izzy's Bar in Superior. She says people are hungry for connection after weeks of social distancing. And she says she expects people at Izzy's will maintain safe distancing on their own.

BREIMON: As far as right now, people are still kind of keeping themselves away from other people.

MENTZER: The state's largest cities, Madison and Milwaukee, remain under local stay-home orders made quickly after the Supreme Court threw out the statewide order last night. In the last 24 hours, a handful of local governments have also extended their own restrictions on businesses. And most cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin have been in urban areas. It's in the state's small cities and rural areas that life is going to change the most as a result of the court ruling. Local officials have recommended that businesses practice social distancing, but it's not required. Of course, just because the statewide order is lifted doesn't mean everyone will return to normal right away.

NANCY RANK: The only way I'd go out to eat is if it were outside and we were spaced far enough. Otherwise, we will continue to order curbside or just make our own.

MENTZER: Nancy Rank was out for a walk Thursday with her friend Joy Olson in downtown La Crosse. Olson says she doesn't agree with the court's decision. But there's one thing she is looking forward to.

JOY OLSON: I'm going to go get my hair done, if I can, sooner. (Laughter) I am. I'm going to. I'll admit it.

MENTZER: Even before the court's order, the governor had already allowed retail businesses to reopen with restrictions, but bars and hair salons remained closed until now. Jalena Rayan owns Blonde & Beyond, a salon in Wausau. Her business didn't get any income from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. She's applied for pandemic unemployment insurance but hasn't heard anything back. It means her business has been without any income for eight weeks. Now she's preparing to open on Monday - but with 15-minute gaps between appointments, lots of sanitizing and everyone wearing masks.

JALENA RAYAN: We work in a salon. We are literally inches away from people. You know, it's not like we're just passing by quickly or - like, we are literally in their face.

MENTZER: Yesterday's court ruling requires Governor Evers to work with state lawmakers on any new statewide pandemic rules. But there are few signs he'll be able to come together with the Republican-controlled legislature. State GOP leaders said they favor planning the state response to future COVID-19 outbreaks not implementing new restrictions right away.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Mentzer in Wausau, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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