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Italian House owner Edmund Halabi prepares sandwiches Monday at his restaurant in Janesville. Halabi said the state should be shut down for two weeks to combat COVID-19.

JANESVILLE

Italian House operator Edmund Halabi looked at his dine-in lunch crowd Monday: exactly two tables, which brought in about $2 of profits for the restaurant.

Halabi wishes Rock County public health officials—and Gov. Tony Evers—could have seen the practically nonexistent dine-in crowd in the east-side family restaurant.

The Italian House’s lunch crowd was nowhere near the 50% occupancy cap the county’s health department had earlier recommended at bars and restaurants when it moved several months ago into from a Phase 1 COVID-19 recovery plan to Phase 2.

Nor was Halabi’s dining room even close to hitting a 25% occupancy cap the county’s health department recommended Monday when it advised bars and restaurants revert to a Phase 1 plan.

Halabi and other restaurants and bar operators in Janesville told The Gazette on Monday they have already seen a dramatic fallout in their most lucrative customers: dine-in patrons.

They’re now bracing for a continued dearth they think will likely be reinforced by the county’s recommended dining capacity rollback.

Halabi said he has recently reached a peak of frustration with county and state officials because he believes COVID-19 recommendations are falling disproportionately heavily on small restaurants and bars. He believes the measures have “stigmatized” dining and drinking establishments and saddled businesses such as his as “the main culprit” in a rise in COVID cases.

But he thinks the county’s new dining rollback recommendation—a move prompted by out-of-control COVID infection rates countywide and statewide—epitomizes a disconnect between science, common sense and public policy.

Halabi believes the county’s new recommended rollback won’t help stem a rise in COVID cases because, he said, those same measures didn’t seem to work earlier this year and because no other public places, including other types of workplaces, are throttling back the same way.

What should happen instead, Halabi believes: Gov. Evers should lock down the entire state for the next two weeks—including all schools and all businesses except grocers, medical providers and gas stations.

Halabi, a pasta chef for four decades, used an analogy that describes crowd restrictions as “Band-Aids” used to cover just a few holes in a spaghetti colander:

“You put a Band-Aid over four holes, but what have you really clogged up? The water’s going to come through the other holes in that colander. You can’t fix that with bandages, and we’ve wasted enough time since March trying to. We’re still wasting time,” he said. “Shut the state down.”

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Republican state Legislature-led lawsuit that essentially blocked Evers from implementing such COVID shutdown mandates.

And the same Republicans want the same court to strike down Evers’ public face-covering mandate, a rule set to expire Saturday.

Halabi said he believes the problem transcends state politics and partisan fighting, but he said small businesses most affected don’t seem to have a voice in government decisions.

“I don’t have the governor’s phone number. I don’t have a phone number for the county’s nursing director. But I’m a voice of concern. And what I’m looking at in front of me is a small business financial crisis,” he said. “I’m expecting leaders out there in our government to be having a real dialogue going on right now.”

Halabi conceives that the state and federal government could respond to states that shut down commerce and public spaces for a period by releasing more rescue stimulus to small businesses, although he's not relying on that happening.

Neither businesses nor state and local governments have control over whether the federal government makes more COVID stimulus available at a later date, and a federal response at this point seems to tilt toward a focus on quickly bringing a coronavirus vaccine to the fore, possibly by mid-2021.

President-elect Joe Biden's transition team has signaled that Biden at this time would not aim to enact a unilateral, national COVID lockdown.

Media reports indicate that President Donald Trump's administration continues to keep Biden's transition team at arms length on COVID-19 briefings that have come since the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Shawnna Shabani, co-owner of the Eagle Inn Family Restaurant on Janesville’s south side, isn’t entertaining the idea of a shutdown, but she might be the city’s poster child for taking what public officials and businesses have referred to as “an abundance of caution” during the COVID pandemic.

Shabani on Monday was decked out in protective glasses, a surgical mask, a head covering and gloves and a plastic face mask adorned with printed eyebrows.

The operator of the family diner said she still sees too many people come into her restaurant with no mask on and no intention to wear one. That’s because the state exempts masks in bars and restaurants. It bothers Shabani, particularly because she has worked hard to keep her regular patrons safe.

The restaurant’s dining counter for weeks has had police tape cordoning it off to customers, an eye-catching reminder that the restaurant continues to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

At noon Monday, Shabani had about seven patrons dining in, and large swaths of the dining room were vacant, with some areas blocked off to seating.

Not once in the last several months, Shabani said, has she had a crowd anywhere near 50% capacity. Like Halabi, she said, most times she sees far less than a 25% capacity crowd.

Shabani said there has been only one time she was busy enough to have to ask patrons to wait outside until enough capacity opened to let them in under county guidelines.

The customers ended up waiting in their car until they could be seated inside, Shabani said.

“I don’t expect that to work again, not now. People are getting tired of the pandemic. They’d probably leave and go someplace else where people aren’t asking these things out of them,” she said.

Shabani said she would adhere to the county’s 25% capacity recommendation because it’s systematic with the amount of foot traffic she is seeing.

She said she gives a “yes and no” vote to continued government recommendations on social distancing and crowd-limit recommendations. It’s in part because she has to—for her business’s own good but also her customers’ well-being.

“I’ll continue to take the same COVID measures because if I don’t have my customers to come back to patronize here, then I’m not going to have a business,” Shabani said.

“But if my customers, for example, are dying off one by one from COVID, I’m gonna go out of business either way.”

This article has been altered from an earlier version to include a restaurant owner's comments on the prospect of more federal COVID-19 stimulus being released to small businesses.

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