CORONAVIRUS

Reynolds closes bars in 6 Iowa counties, including Johnson and Linn, as COVID-19 cases surge

Action comes after university students crowded into bars

Bar patrons wait in line in front of The Airliner in Iowa City on the night of Saturday, August 22, 2020. Bars in Iowa r
Bar patrons wait in line in front of The Airliner in Iowa City on the night of Saturday, August 22, 2020. Bars in Iowa remain open as students return to Iowa City for the fall semester. (Nick Rohlman/freelance for The Gazette)
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JOHNSTON — Days after college students returning to campus flooded downtown bars and showed little regard for rules meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday ordered nightclubs, breweries and bars in six Iowa counties to close almost immediately.

The emergency proclamation took effect at 5 p.m. Thursday in Black Hawk, Dallas, Johnson, Linn, Polk and Story counties — which includes the homes of the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — and will remain until at least Sept. 20.

Restaurants in those counties that serve alcohol can remain open. but must stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m.

Iowa was hit Thursday with a new high of over 1,400 more positive cases reported in a 24-hour period, and the seven-day averages for hospital admissions and deaths have been climbing for weeks, according to state public health data.

Reynolds said the data shows the recent spike in positive cases has been driven primarily by young Iowans between the ages of 19 and 24.

“I don’t make these decisions lightly, and it’s not lost on me that every business forced to close, alter their hours and sales, even temporarily, plays a role in the lives of Iowa workers and our small businesses,” Reynolds said. “But these actions are absolutely necessary and come from guidance within the Iowa Department of Public Health, (state epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati), and the epidemiologist team. And I know today’s decision is the right one.”

All three of Iowa’s public universities began the fall semester this month — and at all three, crowds of students were seen inundating the local bar scenes with scant attention to wearing masks or social distancing.

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Reynolds said in the past seven days, 74 percent of new cases in Story County (home to ISU) and 69 percent of new cases in Johnson County (home to the UI) were among 19- to 24-year-olds.

Statewide, nearly a quarter of all new positive cases over the past two weeks have been among 19- to 24-year-olds, she said.

Reynolds warned that if young Iowans react to bar closures by instead gathering in large groups elsewhere for house parties, she would consider further action.

“If they simply move large-scale parties and other high-risk activity elsewhere, then we’re going to be prepared to do more,” she said.

Reynolds said the closures are needed to slow the virus’ community spread to prevent negative impacts on Iowa’s workforce, health care and school settings, and to slow the virus before the upcoming flu season.

Locally, the order deals another economic blow to bars that already were ordered closed earlier this year because of the pandemic, and then suffered another setback after this month’s destructive derecho. The new closure is a triple whammy for them.

“We are obviously a little bit frustrated with the order. We feel we’ve done everything we can to follow the guidelines and create a safe environment,” said Matt Harding, co-owner of Iowa Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids.

Still, he said he thinks the business will survive if the closure stays to only three weeks. He said the owners feel lucky their business didn’t receive major damage in the derecho, but he knows some places are dealing with a lot more.

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Andrew Harrison, owner of Belle’s Basix in Cedar Rapids, said he understands the need for the emergency order.

“I kind of knew it was probably going to happen. I don’t get it why it’s just six counties and not the whole state, but all in all, it’s for the best health of everybody, so I get it,” he said.

However, he wonders whether his business, the only gay and lesbian bar in Cedar Rapids, can survive many more financial blows. A $5,000 grant he got during the first shutdown is long gone.

“The bills keep piling up, no matter what. Pretty much, now, we’re just living by donations. The community has been great, but they only have so much money themselves,” he said.

He said he is most worried about his staff.

“I’m worried about my bartenders more than anything. We had to shut down for two weeks after the derecho. So they worked for four days and now are shut down again. Unemployment only covers so much, and bartenders kind of thrive off their tips.”

Besides ordering bars closed, Reynolds also asked hosts of gatherings of more than 10 people to maintain 6-foot social distancing and encouraged Iowans aged 2 and older to wear masks in public settings.

She again stopped short of mandating masks be worn in public, saying such a rule would be “unenforceable.”

“Let’s just focus on the goal. Let’s focus on being responsible. Let’s focus on flattening the curve. And let’s focus on doing the right thing,” the Republican governor said. “I believe that we can do that without a mask mandate.”

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Herman Quirmbach, a Democratic state legislator and professor at ISU, issued a statement calling Reynolds’ order to close bars “an appropriate response, in part, to the irresponsible mass student parties of the last several weeks.”

But he also sharply criticized Reynolds’ overall handling of the pandemic. He called on her to “at minimum” order a statewide mask mandate.

“Gov. Reynolds opened the state too fast, failed to set a good example, and continues to prevent good decision-making by local authorities,” Quirmbach said. “The time for half-hearted public relations gestures is over.”

Alison Gowans of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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