Iowa university communities respond to bar closures due to rise in COVID-19 cases

UI President Harreld: 'I was very concerned about the rise in cases and the upcoming weekend'

Bar staff check IDs on Aug. 22 and ensure that customers are wearing masks outside of DC's in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/f
Bar staff check IDs on Aug. 22 and ensure that customers are wearing masks outside of DC’s in Iowa City. (Nick Rohlman/freelance for The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Thursday’s order closing bars and nightclubs in six counties — including university communities where students in recent days have been seen mingling inside and outside establishments without masks or distance — brings relief to some but new peril to others facing another shutdown.

“Everyone is trying to basically come back from the closures and the lack of business during the spring,” said Leah Cohen, owner of Iowa City-based restaurant and bar Bo James. “And then you get this happening. There are many businesses that will not survive.”

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, though, praised the governor’s emergency order.

“I would like to thank Governor Kim Reynolds for her recent action regarding bars and gatherings larger than 10 people,” Harreld said in a statement. “Without those actions I was very concerned about the rise in cases and the upcoming weekend.”

Iowa City Council member Laura Bergus said she, too, is thankful for the order that comes as COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the state — adding 1,477 more Thursday, an all-time high for new positives in a 24-hour period.

Johnson County, home to the UI and Iowa City, added 338 new cases Thursday — more than tripling its previous record of 107 in a day. That 338 daily tally is the most any county has seen in a 24-hour span, bringing Johnson’s seven-day average to a record 115.

“I’m just relieved,” Bergus said about the bars’ closure. “I’m sure this is going to be incredibly hard for our community in a lot of different ways. But thank goodness.”

In a news conference, Reynolds reported the spike has been driven by adults ages 19 to 24.

She said she spoke with Iowa’s public university presidents Wednesday morning “to discuss what they’re seeing on campus and in their communities, as well as what their needs are going forward.”


“I really do appreciate the work that’s being done by all of our Iowa colleges and universities, especially those who have taken strong positions on holding students accountable for violating social distancing norms through large parties or gatherings,” she said. “We are actively working to bring the Test Iowa resources to college campuses to again assist them in meeting their testing needs.”

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen has publicly scolded students for violating face covering and distancing requirements, threatening suspension, as has University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook. UI President Harreld had focused his criticism on the downtown bars — at least until Thursday, following Reynolds’ comments and her new order.

Harreld noted in a statement that all must take responsibility to wear face coverings, socially distance and wash their hands. “Students’ actions on and off campus can and will impact their standing at the university,” he said.

August brings spike

All three of Iowa’s public universities brought tens of thousands of students and employees back to campus this fall, despite the pandemic, for a hybrid semester prioritizing in-person learning but supplementing it with online instruction.

UI students, faculty, and staff in recent weeks pleaded with administrators to make an about-face and go online-only.

But administrators rejected those calls in advocating for student choice, and spent months and millions of dollars planning for as safe a return to face-to-face learning as possible.

But the campuses — before even a week of classes — reported hundreds of positive cases and students forced into isolation and quarantine.

Although the universities had hoped students would voluntarily comply with directions to distance and wear face coverings, many have not and been seen in recent weeks partying unprotected and shoulder-to-shoulder.

Business response

That prompted Harreld’s earlier criticism of the bars, but Iowa City business owners and advocates told The Gazette the vast majority have been complying with mask mandates and distancing orders — offering hand sanitizer and upping cleaning protocols.

Others have run into complexities — like how limiting capacity inside can lead to long lines of waiting students congregating on the sidewalks.


“As a business owner in downtown Iowa City, it is not my obligation to make sure a college student has a mask on outside of my premise,” Bo James owner Cohen said, adding that, even so, the bars had resolved to crack down.

“We had all pretty much decided we were going to take care of it this weekend and try and make these people wear masks,” Cohen said, citing months of preparation and effort they’ve put into making pandemic operations work.

She criticized the letter Harreld sent placing blame on businesses.

“Everyone needs to take responsibility for what’s going on, including the University of Iowa president,” she said. “They were not at all prepared for what happened, and I left a message there this morning.”

Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District, said downtown is more than just bars and that these types of closures have trickledown effects on the restaurant industry, retail operation, salon, design, architect and other business offices and operations.

“Ninety-eight percent have been working overtime to support a safe setting,” she said. “We need community now more than ever. We need to keep up some semblance of spending to support business — in the safest way possible — because a second round of closures is really dire.”

UNI President Mark Nook — like Harreld — praised the closures.

“Today’s action by the governor will help our community protect against the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “It supports the effort already underway by the university and many establishments across the Cedar Valley to protect the health and safety of our community.”

But the Cedar Falls-based College Hill Partnership issued a statement arguing the shutdown won’t have the desired effect.

“When you start dispersing groups of people who want to be in a social setting, it will just move them from one area to the next,” the group’s statement said, referencing a potential threat of more house parties. “At least when they are physically within the four walls of a bar, that establishment has an obligation to keep patrons separate and socially distanced.”

House parties

The order allows shuttered bars to continue selling alcohol for off-premises consumption. And it lets restaurants that get a majority of their revenue from food sales to stay open so long as they stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m.


And while community leaders are glad for the help in cracking down on violations, many also acknowledge the concern students might migrate to nearby neighborhoods for house parties.

“I presume that it will,” City Council member Bergus said, noting that police have enforcement tools like disorderly house citations. “But I worry about city staff safety. I worry about having to interface, to ask people to disperse.”

Iowa City Police Sgt. Derek Frank said only that police are working to determine how to best respond to the order and deploy resources.

Not enough

Some responding to Thursday’s order said it’s too little, too late.

The Cedar Falls business collective, for one, argued the proclamation places the burden “on a few instead of asking a small sacrifice from all.”

“This new order demonstrates a void of leadership without implementing a mask mandate,” the College Hill Partnership said.

Iowa City Council member Janice Weiner said the emergency her community now faces — forcing K-12 kids to start their school year online, community college students to do the same and businesses to shutter once again — could have been avoided.

“She waited so long to act that we were at the point of having to use this sledgehammer,” she said. “Not all bars and bar owners are bad actors, right … But basically we’re at the point of emergency here.”

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