Roadmap to Recovery

Choosing a Plan for Reopening Wisconsin’s Economy

 Tom Larson  |    June 08, 2020

As states across the country begin to gradually reopen their economies for business after weeks of being shut down to control the spread of COVID-19, Wisconsin lawmakers are working on a plan to reopen our state’s economy. 

Developing a plan to reopen businesses in Wisconsin has a greater sense of urgency since the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order on May 12, 2020. 

Reopening Wisconsin’s economy will require a careful balancing of important health and economic considerations. While the coronavirus has not hit the Badger State as hard as some other states, Wisconsin had 19,892 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 626 deaths reported as of June 4. The economic impacts of the virus also have been significant, with 730,000 unemployment claims filed since early March, approximately five times higher compared to the same period a year ago. According to a preliminary analysis by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD), Wisconsin’s unemployment rate could reach nearly 27%.  

As of May 12, Wisconsin lawmakers were considering a variety of federal guidelines and state economic plans to determine which would be the best for us to utilize. This article provides a summary of the principal plans and ideas being considered.

Federal guidelines for reopening the U.S. economy

On April 16, 2020, President Trump issued broad federal guidelines establishing conditions for areas of the U.S. to begin relaxing the strict safety measures imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The 18-page plan, referred to as “Opening Up America Again,” identifies various circumstances necessary for parts of the country to enable businesses to reopen, but the decision to loosen the restrictions will be left up to each individual state.  

The plan establishes three phases designed to help guide areas of the country toward an incremental loosening of restrictions on businesses and individuals. The first phase of the plan is triggered by a downward trend for a 14-day period in the number of cases, positive tests and reports of flu- or COVID-19-like symptoms in a state. Hospital preparedness is also a key factor. The second phase of the plan begins when there is “no evidence of a rebound” in cases after the first phase is implemented. The third phase would kick in with “no evidence of a rebound” after the second phase is implemented, but still suggests that low-risk individuals “consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.” This suggests that a return to life as it existed prior to the coronavirus may not return for a long time, if at all.  

The guidelines lay out three phases:

  • Phase 1: Large venues like restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship would be allowed to reopen if they adhere to “strict physical distances protocols.” All vulnerable individuals continue to stay at home. Physical distancing must be practiced in public places and nonessential travel must be minimized. If schools are closed, they should stay closed. Visiting senior living centers is still not allowed. Employers are encouraged to allow employees to telework.
  • Phase 2: Large venues allowed to open in phase 1 would be allowed to ease their physical distancing requirements to a “moderate” level. Nonessential travel may resume. People should avoid public gatherings of 50 or more, unless physical distancing is possible. Visits to senior centers would still be prohibited, but schools and day care centers could reopen. Bars could be allowed to reopen with “diminished standing-room occupancy.” Gyms could begin operating with “strict” physical distancing and sanitation protocols.  
  • Phase 3: This would be the country’s “new normal." Physical distancing in public places is still recommended, but vulnerable individuals can resume public activities. Visits to senior centers can resume. Large venues could operate with “limited” distancing protocols, and gyms could stay open with “increased standing room occupancy.”

According to the plan, there is no set timeline for moving through each of the three phases. Governors would make that decision, but a state or region should experience another 14-day decline in cases before moving to the next phase.

More information on the “Opening Up America Again” plan can be found at

Badger Bounce Back plan

On April 20, 2020, Gov. Evers introduced a plan to reopen the state economy, called the “Badger Bounce Back” plan. The plan is based upon guidelines established by the “Opening Up America Again” plan for safely relaxing social distancing requirements, and would allow businesses to reopen in several phases based upon a reduction in COVID-19 cases and deaths and an increased capacity in our health care system. 

Specifically, the Bounce Back plan would open the state’s economy in three phases: 

  • Phase 1 would allow gatherings of up to 10 people, enable restaurants to open with social distancing requirements, and lift some restrictions on retailers. K-12 schools and child care centers would remain closed.
  • Phase 2 would allow gatherings of up to 50 people and would enable restaurants to open at full capacity, bars to reopen with social distancing requirements, and colleges and technical schools to reopen.
  • Phase 3 would allow businesses and gatherings to resume as normal.  

To enter the plan’s first phase, Wisconsin would need to satisfy four “gating criteria.” Under the first three criteria, the state would need to demonstrate a downward trajectory over a 14-day period of  (a) reported influenza-like illnesses, (b) reported COVID-19-like syndromic cases, and (c) positive COVID-19 tests as a percent of total tests. According to Gov. Evers, this would be 14 consecutive days of declining numbers. Thus, if the numbers are declining for eight days in a row and an increase occurs on the ninth day, then the 14-day requirement would start over again.  

In addition to the metrics for establishing a decline in cases, the fourth gating criterion under the plan calls for robust testing programs for those who need them — including health care workers — and hospitals would need to have the ability to treat all patients without crisis care. Gov. Evers has indicated that the goal for testing is to ensure that “everyone that needs a test should be tested.”

The Department of Health Services has developed a dashboard that allows the public to track the progress for reopening businesses under the “Badger Bounce Back” plan. The dashboard evaluates each of the gating criteria based upon three color-coded criteria: green indicating that the gating criteria has been met, red indicating that the gating criteria has not been met, and gray indicating that the data is still being gathered.  

More information about the “Badger Bounce Back” plan, as well as the DHS dashboard mentioned above, is available at

Back to Business plan

In an effort to get Wisconsin’s economy up and running again, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) released the “Back to Business” plan. The plan was developed with input from both the medical and business communities and incorporates recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  

The plan would require businesses and other organizations to use a state website administered by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) that would help them determine if it is safe to reopen and the best way to do so. On the website, the business or organization would identify the type of business, based on a six-digit North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code, as well as the county where they are located. A risk score of minimal, moderate or substantial would be calculated based upon the following criteria:

  • Infection rate for their county
  • Population density for their county
  • Current health care capacity and utilization in the county of operation, including personal protective equipment (PPE) availability and ICU and ventilator capacity
  • Interactive concentration (the amount of individual interaction for that particular business)

The risk score would inform the business owner of the necessary steps to reopen their business. Higher risk scores would require more safety requirements such as greater social distancing guidelines for employees and customers, operating at a reduced capacity, and enhanced cleaning procedures and PPE for employees. The scoring is dynamic and can change depending upon changes in circumstances. For example, an increase in the infection rates or a drop in the ventilator capacity could result in the need to put in place additional safety requirements to continue business operations.  

Authors of the plan emphasize that one of its best attributes is the recognition that every business and organization, as well as every part of the state, is unique and requires a more individualized set of criteria to determine when it is safe to reopen.  

The plan has widespread support among businesses, associations and numerous public officials. Before going into effect, the plan would need to be approved by both the legislature and governor.  

More information about the “Back to Business” plan can be found at

Reopening plans by other Midwestern states

Other states across the Midwest are also implementing plans to reopen their economies and could serve as good models for Wisconsin.  

Illinois, for example, has a five-phased, regional plan that is similar to Gov. Evers’ “Badger Bounce Back” plan. Phase one of the plan is similar to Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order, which provided strict stay-at-home requirements and social distancing guidelines, and allowed only essential businesses to stay open. Phase two of the Illinois plan, which began May 1, allowed more businesses to reopen including retail stores, which can now provide curbside pickup and delivery services.

Indiana has a multi-phased plan with the goal of reopening the entire economy by July 4. In early May, Indiana implemented stage two of its plan, which lifted restrictions on nonessential travel, and allowed social gatherings of up to 25 people if CDC and social distancing requirements are met. In addition, shopping malls, retail establishments, restaurants and bars that serve food were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity.    
Minnesota also started to reopen its economy in early May by allowing nonessential retailers to provide curbside service and white-collar offices and nonessential manufacturing plants to open.  

In determining the best way to reopen our economy in a safe and effective manner, Wisconsin lawmakers have numerous plans from which to choose, including allowing each individual business to decide how and when to open. Hopefully, a plan will be in development soon to provide businesses, workers and the public with some guidance and much-needed certainty.  

As always, the WRA will be working closely with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to adopt a plan that makes sense for Wisconsin families, workers and the overall economy.     

Tom Larson is Senior Vice President of Legal and Public Affairs for the WRA.

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