IOWA CITY — After crowds of maskless University of Iowa students were seen mingling shoulder-to-shoulder in Iowa City bars over the weekend — apparently rebuffing mask mandates and distancing guidelines — UI President Bruce Harreld on Tuesday implored restaurants and bars to come into “immediate compliance.”
After the university spent months and millions preparing to bring tens of thousands of students back to campus this fall amid the pandemic, Harreld in an “open letter” to business leaders cited the high stakes of letting students continue to pack bars and shed their masks as soon as they enter.
“Your decisions will directly impact the university’s ability to honor the choices our students made to be in our community and on our campus,” he wrote. “Our students want to be here. The university wants them here, and the university knows how to keep them safe. Please help them stay here by doing your part.”
He slammed the establishments for sluggish enforcement and scolded them for a recent spike in virus cases.
“Over the past two weeks, I have been exceedingly disappointed in some of the downtown Iowa City businesses and your choices to disregard the proclamation from the governor,” he wrote. “These actions have led to an increase in the transmission of COVID-19 in our community, and we, as a community, will now have to respond.
“I am imploring you to adhere to the governor’s proclamation,” which, he said, requires Iowa bars and restaurants to ensure at least 6 feet of distance between each group or individual dining or drinking alone; ensure all patrons have a seat at a table or bar; and limit patrons from congregating closer than 6 feet.
Other city leaders, too, have urged more compliance and — if necessary — stronger enforcement.
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“We need to put some more teeth into it,” Iowa City Council member Pauline Taylor said Tuesday. “My call is out to those — and we know who they are — those owners and managers of those establishments that are not following these guidelines …. We need to put some pressure on them, whatever that might be.”
She suggested peer pressure from other business owners. Taylor also asked the public to reach out to bar owners to urge compliance.
She noted the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division has the power to pull liquor licenses.
“We could do curfews,” she said. “Heaven forbid, we have go through the steps of closing the bars. That’s just a very last resort, in my opinion.”
Noting barriers the city faces in trying to cap the number of people in businesses and enforce face covering mandates, Taylor said UI student cooperation is paramount — although she didn’t want to blame them entirely.
“I think we need to stress more to the students, and I just wish that the university would help us out with that a little more,” she said before Harreld’s letter. “People are dying. People are sick. And these numbers are very scary.”
Johnson County added another 84 COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period ending at 11 a.m. Tuesday — continuing a string of 80-plus days for its three highest 24-hour periods to date.
“Thank you, thank you to those that are following those guidelines,” Taylor said. “But shame on those that are not. Shame on those.”
In addition to the governor’s proclamation, the Iowa City Council issued an order July 21 mandating everyone wear a face covering in all public spaces where social distancing could not be achieved — and it barred businesses from serving customers who aren’t in compliance.
So far, Iowa City police have taken an educational approach to urging compliance. But police Sgt. Derek Frank said that, should educational efforts fail, “our options include criminal charges for individuals and bar staff, as well as working in conjunction with Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division.”
A July 30 statement from the state division promised stronger enforcement and threatened $1,000 fines and possible license suspensions.
But a spokesman said the division typically operates through a “complaint-based system” — meaning team members might act only after receiving a complaint.
“ABD does do proactive inspections of establishments as well, and we are increasing these inspections with this enforcement initiative,” said Jake Holmes, with the division’s education and outreach.
The agency has increased enforcement statewide, according to Holmes, including in Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls — home to the UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.
Asked whether it had investigators in Iowa City over the weekend, Holmes said he’s “unable to share specifics about these enforcement efforts at this time.”
Council member Taylor told The Gazette that, despite complaints, some “glitch” kept investigators from being here.
Taylor believes division investigators are headed to Iowa City this coming weekend. She and other council members have flagged liquor licenses as a strong stick in getting bars to follow rules — even those that could hurt business.
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“But we don’t have the power as a city to pull liquor licenses,” she said. “We cannot. But trust me, believe me, we would, and we would have a long time ago.”
Nancy Bird, Iowa City Downtown District executive director, noted most businesses “are doing an excellent job” enforcing state and local mandates and restrictions. And she urged the importance of student responsibility.
“We need our student body and the demographic that’s younger to really own it and take it seriously,” she said.
Ramifications if both students and businesses don’t increase compliance could reach well beyond the downtown district, according to Tim Carty, co-owner of Table, a new restaurant in North Liberty. His establishment has been following mask mandates and keeping tables distanced, curtailing potential revenue.
“We’re making sacrifices for the greater good here. We want everybody to be able to stay open and to be safe — especially our staff and our guests — that’s the most important thing to us,” he said. “But when I see pictures of crowded bars downtown, it just seems so disrespectful to so many people.”
And with new case numbers rising in Johnson County, Carty said he’s worried about the prospect of another shutdown — especially considering his business is so new it didn’t qualify for federal aid.
Carty noted everyone has had to make changes in response to COVID-19.
“Every single business has had to pivot, except — seemingly — the bars downtown,” he said.
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Lee Hermiston of The Gazette contributed to this report.
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