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Capitol Ideas: A remarkable week as coronavirus impact is felt in Iowa government

State Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, works March 16 at her desk in the Iowa House at the Statehouse in Des Moines, I
State Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, works March 16 at her desk in the Iowa House at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. The legislative session has been suspended for at least 30 days in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The novel coronavirus is upending the daily lives of Iowans at every turn.

State government is not immune.

Last week was a remarkable one in Iowa’s capital city as Gov. Kim Reynolds provided multiple updates on the spread of the disease and state government’s efforts to minimize the impact, and as the Iowa Legislature shut down temporarily as a precaution.

The temporary suspension of the Iowa Legislature was an obvious necessity. In a normal year, the Iowa Capitol becomes a petri dish as colds and flu flow throughout the building, which is packed daily with people cramming into small rooms, greeting one another with handshakes and hugs, and working close to others.

With the COVID-19 spreading the way it has, shutting down the Legislature was inevitable.

Still, it made for an interesting day at the Capitol, as lawmakers gathered one last time — for now — to approve extra funding for virus testing at the state hygienic lab and give some emergency powers to the governor. It felt much like the end of a legislative session, when leaders are huddled in closed-door meetings to work out agreements, while the rest of us — rank-and-file lawmakers included — wait.

When the work was finished, there were handshakes and hugs — probably too many, given the exceptional circumstances — as lawmakers prepared to go their separate ways, not knowing when they might return to finish their work for the session.

Reynolds has stepped up the frequency of news conferences in order to provide fresh updates on the COVID-19 impact in Iowa. As the disease continues to spread, its impact and the state’s response change almost daily.

To pull back the curtain for you, even the governor’s news conferences have become a practice in social distancing. They are being staffed by a limited number of reporters in the room — one each from print, TV and radio media that share the information with other reporters — while other reporters are allowed to call into the news conference and ask questions via a conference line.

It’s a new world we’re all living in. Fortunately for me, as a bureau reporter, I’m accustomed to working on my own, away from other people. To borrow a joke being passed around by social introverts, I’ve been preparing for this moment for years.

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I also wanted to take this moment to make a humble plea: If you’re able, and if you’re not already, please subscribe to your local newspaper. The economic impact of this virus could be devastating, and that will affect newspapers. As businesses become forced to make spending decisions, advertising almost certainly will be reduced. That will have a critical impact on newspapers, which already are struggling to earn enough revenue to support staff.

Your local newspapers work hard every day to report the news that matters most to you in your communities. In this exceptional time, that work is even more valuable.

If you can, please support that work. Help us to help you.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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