CORONAVIRUS

Gov. Kim Reynolds eases coronavirus restrictions in 77 Iowa counties

Restaurants, malls and others can open at 50 percent capacity Friday

State Public Health Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati speaks as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, looks on, while updatin
State Public Health Medical Director Dr. Caitlin Pedati speaks as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, looks on, while updating the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

JOHNSTON — Restaurants, malls, fitness centers and a limited number of other businesses in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties may partially reopen starting Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday in revising emergency orders she issued earlier to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Also under her new order, religious activities starting Friday will be exempt statewide from limits on the size of mass gatherings but still must follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

Reynolds said she was starting the process of easing “an aggressive mitigation strategy” by returning some normalcy to areas, especially in western Iowa, where data on the spread of the coronavirus points to a stabilization or downward trend in positive cases or even no known cases at all.

Some of the state’s largest population centers — including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Iowa City and Waterloo — are not included in the 77 counties where some restrictions will begin to ease.

“The reality is that we can’t stop the virus, that it will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available,” Reynolds told her daily news briefing at the state emergency operations center in Johnston. “Instead we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives.”

For the other 22 counties, where many of Iowa’s 5,858 positive cases have been more widespread, Reynolds said she was keeping most restrictions until May 15. Those counties are: Allamakee, Benton, Black Hawk, Bremer, Dallas, Des Moines, Dubuque, Fayette, Henry, Iowa, Jasper, Johnson, Linn, Louisa, Marshall, Muscatine, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Tama, Washington and Woodbury.

Still, some businesses statewide — in addition to internet sales and curbside delivery — may offer sales by appointment as long there are no more than 10 customers in the store at once. Included are clothing, shoe, luggage and jewelry stores; cosmetic, beauty or perfume outlets; florists; furniture and home furnishing stores; tobacco and vaping stores; and toy, gaming, music, instrument, movie and adult entertainment stores.

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Many business and social activities where challenges to social-distancing and group gatherings exist — like hair salons and casinos — must remain closed statewide until May 15.

Back on March 17, the governor declared a statewide public health disaster emergency that included limiting gatherings to 10 people and closing bars, restaurants, casinos and other businesses in response to the coronavirus. She later expanded it to include a wide swath of other business and social activities until April 30 that curtailed non-essential retail and other functions.

“This level of mitigation is not sustainable for the long term and it has unintended consequences for Iowa families,” Reynolds said Monday. “So we must gradually shift from an aggressive mitigation strategy to focusing on containing and managing virus activity for the long term in a way that allows us to safely and responsibly balance the health of our people and the health of our economy.”

Under Reynolds’ new order, restaurants and shopping malls in the selected counties will be limited to 50 percent of their capacity and will be expected to continue to observe social-distancing guidelines. Play areas in malls will not be open and food courts will be limited to carryout orders, the governor said.

Social, community, recreational and leisure sporting events can open with limits of 10 people under the first phase of her reopen Iowa plan.

She said her statewide lifting of some restrictions on religious and spiritual activities was “recognizing the significant constitutional liberties involved” so church services may resume.

For restaurants allowed to serve food and beverages on their premises, they must limit the number of customers at indoor or outdoor spaces to half the normal operating capacity to ensure adequate spacing of groups of no larger than six people. Restaurants also must ensure at least 6 feet of distance between each group or individual dining alone, and self-service of food or beverages — including buffets or salad bars — is prohibited. Restaurants with bars must close them to the public.

Asked for clarification on the definitions of restaurants and bars as they apply to the order, Reynolds’ spokesman Pat Garrett said bars must remain closed in the 77 counties that have limited reopenings. However, Garrett noted that a bar is a “an establishment where a customer may purchase alcoholic beverages and in which the serving of food is incidental to the consumption of those beverages and is limited to the service of ice, snack foods and the reheating of commercially prepared foods such as frozen pizza, prepackaged sandwiches, or other prepackaged, ready-to-serve products.”

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If the establishment actually prepares and serves food beyond this incidental definition, Garrett said, it may open as a restaurant under the restrictions.

The order provides that fitness centers, health clubs, health spas and gyms in the 77 counties may reopen, but the number of customers must be limited to half the maximum legal occupancy and equipment must be either spaced at least 6 feet apart or not used if too close.

Any group activities or classes must be limited to 10 or fewer people and all people participating must maintain a distance of 6 feet.

Enclosed malls in the selected counties may reopen with a maximum of half the number of customers as normally allowed. But the malls also must keep closed all common seating areas, though restaurants in food courts may operate on a carryout basis.

Also, libraries in those counties may reopen as long they limit the number of patrons to half the maximum legal occupancy and use social distancing.

Last week, Reynolds announced restrictions on elective and non-essential medical procedures and farmers markets would be eased.

Still closed statewide until May 15 are bars, theaters, casinos and gaming facilities, social and fraternal clubs, senior-citizen centers and adult day care facilities, bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, arcades and amusement parks, museums, aquariums, zoos, skating rinks and skate parks, playgrounds, campgrounds, swimming pools, salons, barbershops, medical spas, tattoo establishments, tanning facilities and massage therapy businesses.

Health officials said they will closely monitor COVID-19 and make adjustments either to open up more of the state or scale things back if trends go the wrong way.

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Iowa Department of Public Health officials said Monday said nine more Iowans died from the virus: three Polk County residents age 81 or older; two Black Hawk County residents between 61 and 80; a Dubuque County resident between 61 and 80 age range; and three Iowans — one from Bremer County, one from Poweshiek County and one from Washington County — over 80.

Health officials said the state posted 349 new positive COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 5,868 since the virus was confirmed March 8 in Iowa.

So far, 38,282 tests have been administered for a rate of one out of every 82 Iowans.

The number of Iowans who are hospitalized with the disease stood at 300 Monday with 31 new admissions in the past 24 hours. There were no new outbreaks announced at long-term care facilities, keeping that number at 16.

Black Hawk County continued to post the highest number of new cases at 844, followed by Polk County at 756, Linn County at 613, Woodbury County at 495 and Marshall County at 408.

Reynolds said her expanded testing program covering 38,150 Iowans so far and slated soon to grow daily by more than 3,000 tests has enabled her team to identify and isolate virus carriers, trace their contacts and provide a basis to make targeted, “evidence-based’ decisions on gradually reopening Iowa.

“I know that there are many more Iowans who are eager to know when their communities will begin to reopen,” Reynolds said. “And I want to reassure you we will continue to monitor all areas of the state on a daily basis for trends in virus activity.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, praised Reynolds’ decision to ease restrictions in a phased approach that he said showed “steady leadership” during the pandemic.

However, Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines said safely reopening Iowa’s economy will require “a massive scale-up of testing and contract tracing” and a longer period of social distancing.

“Iowans don’t want to be used as guinea pigs,” she said.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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