DES MOINES — Bars around the University of Iowa and Iowa State University must remain closed for now, but those around Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls and Des Moines are free to reopen Wednesday evening, Gov. Kim Reynolds declared Tuesday.
The governor revised an order she issued Aug. 27 that closed bars and other similar establishments in six Iowa counties that in late August saw alarming spikes in new COVID-19 cases as college students returned to campuses for fall.
Reynolds’ order initially required bars in six counties to close until this Sunday. But her revision allows bars in Black Hawk, Dallas, Linn and Polk counties to reopen earlier than that, starting at 5 p.m. Wednesday,
However, bars in Johnson County and Story County — home to the UI and ISU, respectively — must stay closed through Sunday unless Reynolds changes her order.
“Obviously it’s very disappointing that it seems they think people in Johnson County and Story County can’t operate in a safe manner,” said Brian Flynn, owner of Joe’s Place, an institution in downtown Iowa City for college students. “Does she feel like one more weekend is going to make that big a difference in those counties? I don’t know.”
Flynn said he hopes restrictions on the two remaining counties will still be lifted at midnight Sunday as planned and not be extended.
The governor’s new proclamation continuing the Public Health Disaster Emergency permits bars, taverns, wineries, breweries, distilleries, nightclubs, country clubs or other social or fraternal clubs — including wedding reception venues — to reopen in the four designated counties. It also removes restrictions on hours that alcohol may be sold in restaurants in those four counties.
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The order also clarifies the social distancing requirements that still apply to all bars and restaurants in the state.
The emergency proclamation says that the bars that still must be closed in Johnson and Story counties may continue to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption off premises. Restaurants in the two counties are still permitted to remain open, but must stop selling and serving alcoholic beverages after 10 p.m.
When she took the initial action last month to close businesses in the six affected counties, Reynolds said the action was required to slow the spread of COVID-19 — especially among people in the 19 to 24 age range — to prevent negative impacts on Iowa’s workforce, health care and school settings.
Last week, she said the move was necessary to address behavior that was starting to drive community spread of COVID-19 — most notably in college towns where the resumption of fall semester classes were accompanied by crowds of students seen at bars showing little regard for masks or social distancing rules.
Reynolds said counties with higher positive COVID-19 cases had made progress last week in controlling the viral spread, but she planned to continue monitoring the trends before lifting the order for all.
According to an analysis Tuesday by The Gazette, only two of the six counties affected by the initial closure order have 14-day average positivity rates for COVID-19 tests of above 15 percent — Story County at 20.79 percent and Johnson County at 19.976 percent.
The proclamation affecting Johnson and Story counties does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol on a casino floor, inside an individual theater or in a person’s hotel room, provided that the establishment otherwise complies with all relevant requirements.
It also indicates that an establishment closed to the public may still serve food and beverages at a private gathering hosted at the establishment, such as a wedding reception, provided that the establishment complies with all social distancing requirements.
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Reynolds has implemented a state program offering one-time $10,000 grants to eligible bars and taverns negatively impacted by her closure order. The Iowa Economic Development Authority is overseeing the grants as part of the Iowa Small Business Relief Grant Program, with the estimated cost of $5 million.
Reynolds said that stopgap funding was intended to “ease” the order’s impact “until we can get them back open and I’m hoping that we can do that next week.”
A group of bar owners in Polk and Dallas counties previously sued Reynolds, arguing that the governor was unfairly targeting their industry and had given them just a few hours’ notice to shut down, adding to the financial strain their businesses suffered from closures ordered earlier this spring after the coronavirus pandemic hit Iowa on March 8.
But a district judge declined to issue a temporary injunction that would have allowed the bars to reopen. He did allow the owners to go to trial and argue the order is unconstitutional.
Reynolds’ revised proclamation also continues to strongly encourage — but not require — all Iowans 2 or older to wear a mask or other face covering when in public, especially in circumstances when it is not possible to remain 6 feet away from others outside the household, unless it is unsafe to do so because of health or disability.
Iowa City, Johnson County and Cedar Rapids are among the Iowa communities that have enacted local mask requirements, though Reynolds argues they do not have the legal authority to enforce them.
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Alison Gowans and John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed to this report.
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