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Empty Hotels, Closed Bars and No Crowds: Milwaukee During the DNC

This was supposed to be Milwaukee’s week in the sun.

When it was picked last March to host the Democratic National Convention—the biggest city in a state the Democrats are desperately hoping to claim back from Donald Trump—local leaders and businesspeople strapped in for the excitement the four-day mega-event would bring. Local politicians got ready for the national spotlight. So did protesters. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

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In June, the DNC said its convention would be scaled back, and in July, it announced that it would go completely virtual. No longer would swarms of speakers, delegates, journalists and others flock to Wisconsin, filling the downtown restaurants, hotels and the breweries Milwaukee is famous for. Celebrities and VIPs would be staying home. “A gut punch,” said a local steakhouse owner to NPR. “A virtual convention is about as nourishing for its host city as a virtual bratwurst is to a hungry man,” wrote a Milwaukee author in The New York Times.

So when the DNC finally unfolded, what happened in Milwaukee? Not everyone stayed home. There was still a small staging area inside the arena and some protesters outside. Mostly, though, the city was quiet as Milwaukeans watched what could have been. Photographer Stephen Voss captured the atmosphere this week—the empty shops and streets, the disappointed delegates watching at home, the drive-in viewings for some party supporters to take in the televised spectacle—of a city bereft of its big event.

Above, cones and barriers block off the nonexistent foot and vehicle traffic outside Wisconsin Center.

Lakefront Brewery owner Russ Klisch stands in his brewery hall that had been renovated for the boom in business the 2020 Democratic National Convention was anticipated to bring but never did.

“We were expecting thousands of people. … I guess it’s kinda disappointing,” says Don Elsing, a local business owner.

“Really, until it was called a few weeks ago, we were still working to be ready for it. … Summer for us was going to be really big, so we went from feast to famine in a couple months,” says David Dupee, co-founder of Good City Brewing, pictured above in his empty downtown taproom that was set to be a convention-adjacent event site for NBC before the media company canceled its reservation.

Wisconsin state delegate Tommy Molina, a community organizer and Bernie Sanders supporter, stands outside against a fence.

A small stage was still set up in the convention hall for some speakers, like Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, to broadcast their speeches from, but vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and presidential nominee Joe Biden each spoke from bigger sets in Delaware.

It wasn’t just the DNC. “This was going to be Milwaukee’s year to shine,” says Tim Dixon, founder of Iron Horse Hotel. The Milwaukee Bucks basketball team was doing well before the NBA moved all its games to Orlando, and the Ryder Cup golf tournament that was set to be held in nearby Sheboygan was postponed until 2021.

Milwaukee delegates who would have had a front row seat to the convention instead watched on TV at home with their family and friends.

A gift shop in Milwaukee’s Hyatt Regency Hotel displays unsold DNC merchandise.

The youth climate group Extinction Rebellion as well as various Black Lives Matter demonstrators and Bernie Sanders supporters protested outside the DNC, but much of their target audience was not there.

A few TV news crews still recorded segments outside the security perimeter of the DNC, though little action was happening behind them.

Some restaurants and bars hosted live viewings of the nightly programming, while others remained closed, some permanently—like The Angry Taco, below—due to the pandemic economy.

Despite the letdown of losing much of what typically makes a political convention, some protesters and Democrats in Milwaukee made the best of the situation, plastering parts of the city with posters and coming together to watch the spectacle in a socially distanced way.


Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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