Speaking out

Chef Dave Heide testifies against Assembly Bill 1 in a Monday, Jan. 11, hearing.

Last week, chef and restaurateur Dave Heide used his voice to push back on a state bill he felt did little to help small businesses stay afloat amid COVID-19.

And that’s one aspect of the advocacy work he is doing. There’s more to come, he said.

The owner of Liliana’s Restaurant and the nonprofit restaurant Little John’s testified against Assembly Bill 1 in a Monday, Jan. 11, hearing. He, along with other small business owners and advocacy group Main Street Alliance, asked the Wisconsin State Legislature to eliminate a provision rendering businesses immune to liabilities for not following public health orders. The legislation, an extension of the state’s April 2020 COVID-19 response bill, also included no grant assistance for small businesses, Heide told the Star.

“I need your help actually protecting our restaurants, not just trying to protect us from litigation, but trying to help and support us with grants and funds to help get us through this,” Heide said during his Jan. 11 testimony.

Those voicing support for the legal immunity provision Jan. 11 included Kwik Trip, the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

During her testimony, Wisconsin Restaurant Association president Kristine Hillmer said restaurants have been “scapegoated” during the pandemic.

“Our industry has become a major fall guy for this pandemic, which also makes us a major target for frivolous lawsuits over exposure to COVID-19,” she said.

Officials ultimately amended the liability provision Main Street Alliance manager Shawn Phetteplace told the Star, he thinks partly because of Heide’s testimony. The new version is significantly “watered down,” he said, to the point of carrying little legal weight.

Heide, formerly owning Charlie’s on Main in Oregon, closed that establishment down last fall when he found the business was no longer financially viable because of COVID-19. That, and his overall experience as a restaurateur during the health crisis was the driving force behind testifying, he said.

In addition to speaking out against the bill, Heide is working with Main Street Alliance on other efforts to assist local businesses and the greater community in navigating the financial fallout of the pandemic.

Through Little John’s, Heide has coordinated with area nonprofits and organizations to distribute over 3 million masks and “barrels” of hand sanitizer amid the pandemic, Phetteplace said. And Heide has worked to provide over 34,000 meals to food insecure families. He and the Alliance are also in talks with Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes about ways to keep businesses operational at the state level.

For now, while the amended bill still doesn’t do enough to address the state’s pandemic situation, Phetteplace said, amending the immunity provision was a step in the right direction.

“(The bill) does nothing to help me or my workers that I’m working so hard to assist,” Heide said during his Jan. 11 testimony.

Heide testified that even though this is the first time officials have gathered in months, he’s been in his kitchens, “rolling up his sleeves” and making sure his employees are supported and customers kept healthy. That will be his priority even as vaccinations start rolling out, he said.

“We’ve got the light at the end of the tunnel,” Heide said. “Legislate … so we can get through this safely.”

Email Emilie Heidemann at emilie.heidemann@wcinet.com or follow her on Twitter at @HeidemannEmilie.