IOWA CITY — When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached Iowa City, downtown shut down. Restaurants were open only for delivery and carryout if they were open at all, and retail and other businesses closed up shop or sold what they could online. Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird led the organization in its quest to keep businesses running and informed amid the early days of the pandemic. Now, as restaurants and stores have begun reopening — and cases have begun rising again in Johnson County — she’s working to make downtown as safe as possible for visitors and businesses alike.
Bird recently shared her thoughts on how downtown has transformed in the coronavirus era and how communication has helped keep the district alive.
Q: How has the district’s work with businesses changed from the beginning of the pandemic to when businesses are reopening?
A: We tried to be as nimble as possible in getting information out. We knew things were happening so quickly, we just needed to kind of change our tactics for communication. When those impacts started to occur, within three days there were businesses closing their doors. We were able to immediately pull together a community-wide Zoom to say here’s what’s happening and just share what’s going on and build a pattern of that communication over the course of time.
We also partnered with our peer organizations of Think Iowa City and (Iowa City Area Development) and the Iowa City Area Business Partnership to streamline communications when so much information is coming so quickly from all angles. From funding opportunities to health, what’s happening in our hospitals, what’s happening on the ground, and how can we best help support decision-making in unpredictable environments. We’ve built a number of guides to support what does closing look like and what does it reopening look like.
Q: How has the district worked to make downtown more accessible for social distancing?
A: Our layout does look different, and we explored other models for what that could look like, but at the end of the day we held Zoom meetings block by block to talk about the individual mix of businesses and organizations on each block to say, ‘What can we do best here in this one-block area to support people being able to access your entity in the safest manner?’ So, the big thing that has probably resulted the most from that is that ... the city brought in additional picnic tables, which we have asked artists to paint ... to provide some additional seating so that people can order out, or feel like they can be outdoors because we know outdoors is the safest place to be right now to prevent the spread of COVID that typically happens indoors.
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We also closed a street in our North Side neighborhood, and the Northside Market Place, to provide additional seating, literally on the street for businesses in that area. Those businesses chose to try something different and, by all means it is making a major impact during COVID to allow customers to access them, because they feel like they can do so and feel safe and feel like they’re not going to get sick.
Q: How has the downtown district changed its operations during this time?
A: Mostly we had a lot of events planned for the summer that take a lot of staff time, and we’re still planning for some live and virtual events later in the summer, depending on how things go. But a lot of the workload that goes with events has been redirected to some degree on supporting marketing of how we’re social distancing and also on our joint communications team to build resources for COVID and Black Lives Matter ... in ways we can support those movements. So I think it’s just been ... a redirection of some of that workload that went with the Block Party to these other efforts. ... Summer is typically a heavy lift for our staff but it does look a little bit different this summer.
Q: What advice would you have for downtown visitors and businesses?
A: The governor has reopened the economy so we are navigating reports related to Johnson County health around COVID-19, trying to do our best to reduce the spread. We’re trying to get everybody signed up on the Mask of Wellness page ... If you sign up, it shares what you’re doing to keep patrons safe and your employees safe, so that people can know where they can safely come to shop and where they can safely come to eat out.
We want to encourage people to continue to order or deliver out or whatever they’re comfortable doing, but continue to support the businesses so that they can remain open, even after this impact because it’s that critical, so we think that there’s opportunities to be here downtown and feel safe.
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