IOWA CITY — Just hours before University of Iowa students head back to class Monday for an unprecedented semester plagued by a pandemic that forced the campus to spend millions of dollars and months of time preparing for, throngs of students late Saturday and early Sunday packed downtown bars with little regard for social distancing or the city’s mask mandate.
Many students mingled shoulder-to-shoulder in long lines to get into The Summit, Bo James, The Airliner and other bars without wearing masks or with masks tucked under their chins.
Since door checkers at the bars required patrons to wear masks to enter, many pulled them out along with their IDs and strapped them behind their ears — before promptly pulling them off once inside.
At 1:06 a.m. Sunday, Iowa City police took a “COVID complaint” at The Summit on Clinton Street, with the call also noting, “Joe’s Place and Airliner are all over capacity and not enforcing mask mandate.”
A Gazette reporter’s check of establishments around midnight confirmed most, if not all, did not appear to be enforcing social distancing inside or mask wearing — rebuffing mandates proclaimed by Iowa City’s mayor.
“No business open to the public may provide service to a customer or allow a customer to enter without the customer wearing a face covering,” according to the Iowa City order, which City Council member Susan Mims acknowledged involves questions about enforcement.
“We’re working with the (Alcoholic Beverages Division), and I would hope that they would take some action against some of these bars because I think there is some question of what the city can enforce and do,” Mims told The Gazette. “I’m very concerned. I know all the council members are very concerned.”
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On Sunday, Johnson County reported its highest-ever number of new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period ending at 11 a.m. — 91 — since the first positive cases in Iowa were confirmed in the county on March 8.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, in a push earlier this summer to reopen the state, lifted a half-capacity limit on restaurants and bars. She ordered them to continue observing 6-foot separations, increased hand washing and other sanitation measures to mitigate spread of the virus.
She has urged Iowans to wear masks but says she will not require it — though some local officials have issued mandates themselves.
As hundreds waited Saturday and early Sunday to get into Iowa City bars, no one was seen enforcing distancing in the lines. Although some students wore masks, few were wearing them over both their nose and mouth as public health guidance call for.
The unruly scene came only a day after UI officials issued another campus message reminding students to wear face coverings in accordance with city and county mandates and to keep at least 6 feet from others when possible.
Students were asked to take a 30- to 45-minute COVID-19 training before returning to campus — although administrators have not stated a penalty for failing to do so. The UI also asked students to sign a health and safety acknowledgment that, among other things, commits them to use face coverings in public.
The university has urged voluntary compliance and kindness in enforcement but said that “if absolutely necessary, repeated failure to meet these procedures may be addressed through university human resources and the Office of Student Accountability.”
After Iowa State University last week saw maskless students crammed into bars and house parties — also the weekend before classes began there Aug. 17 — ISU President Wendy Wintersteen issued a scathing letter scolding the behavior and threatening suspensions. A new ISU policy requires all on- and off-campus gatherings to comply with health orders — including face covering mandates and social distancing guidelines.
“Students who engage in irresponsible behavior, including attending large gatherings or parties that violate physical distancing and face covering rules, will be subject to university discipline, and could lead to suspension,” Wintersteen’s message said.
UI leaders have not enacted such strict guidelines or issued stern warnings.
Although ISU was the only of Iowa’s three public universities to require students get tested before moving into the residence halls — finding 175 positive cases they required to isolate — all three schools are offering testing this semester.
They will issue numbers of self-reported positives weekly. But administrators have said that, because of the health privacy law, can’t require students to self-report.
The three campuses — which went entirely virtual in the spring and have reported losing tens of millions of dollars from the pandemic — began preparing for a fall return to campus months ago at the direction of the Iowa Board of Regents.
At the UI, all classes of 50 or more students will be online instead of in-person. Even so, UI student leaders and many faculty and staff have called for the university to make an about-face to start the year online only — as cases continue to rise in the state and as other universities nationally do so.
But UI administrators have declined, explaining not everyone agrees and others should have the chance for an in-person, on-campus experience.
With tens of thousands of students back at the universities — hoping for some semblance of a traditional college experience — a new White House report this month again flagged Iowa as a “red zone” state and recommended closing “indoor bars and gyms” among other steps.
The Iowa City Council raised some form of that idea last week during a work session. Members aired frustrations and concerns about how the student return might affect the community at large. Council member Pauline Taylor reported that day’s increase in new cases was “very alarming.”
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“That sets up some red flags,” she said. “This is very real. And it’s scary. And we need to do something.”
She raised the question of closing bars at 10 p.m., but acknowledged that could push students into the neighborhoods and house parties.
Council member John Thomas reported, “What I’m seeing up on the north side is some evidence of partying in large groups.”
The council urged increased education and communication and collaboration with police.
But Mims said she thinks more enforcement will be necessary — hopefully through the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division.
“I would hope that they would come in and suspend and shut down some of these bars,” she said. “Because I think we’re going to have a huge outbreak.”
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