Staff Columnist

Who is responsible if you get sick?

Kim Reynolds, Governor of Iowa, speaks to the press about the state's COVID-19 coronavirus response during a news confer
Kim Reynolds, Governor of Iowa, speaks to the press about the state's COVID-19 coronavirus response during a news conference on Sunday, March 22, 2020, at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

At a Subway restaurant in northwest Iowa, families come in during the lunch rush and laugh and talk, standing close to the people in front of them in line. Dee, an employee, who ask not to be identified, told me customers complain that they can’t sit in the booths. “They just don’t get it,” she said. “They’re real irritated when we tell them it’s carry out only.”

Dee says it’s just as busy as it’s always been. Business dropped off for a bit after Gov. Reynolds declared a statewide emergency, but now with school out for the foreseeable future and parents home, Dee serves large groups every day.

It’s terrifying. “It’s like they don’t believe in corona,” said Dee. “Like it’s some ghost story.”

But for Dee, if she reports her employer, she risks her job, even talking to me was a risk. But if she goes into work, she risks her life. She’s stuck in a place where businesses mandate impossible orders and a government does nothing to stop people from going out — and the virus still is out there.

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Dee watches people’s hands touching faces and counters. They lean over the glass partition to point out the things they want on their sandwiches. But she can’t do anything about that. She still needs the money. Unless she’s laid off or the store closes, she can’t file for unemployment. There is no sick leave, so if she does contract Covid-19, she has to take the loss in pay. So, she goes into work

A Subway spokesperson told me that stores were being encouraged to provide employees with protective gear. And Subway corporate policy requires that Dee and her co-workers disinfect the store every hour, but it’s a nice corporate spin that doesn’t reflect the reality facing employees. Where Dee works, there are no face masks or hand sanitizer. There is soap, of course, and Subway has removed self-service items like lids and straws. But with the amount of work and the steady flow of customers, disinfecting the store every hour is impossible. But if she says anything, she risks her job.

It’s an impossible situation. “What do you do?” asks Dee, “Where do you go? The Governor won’t close the stores. The businesses won’t close the stores. People won’t stop coming in … so how does it end?”

Two days after I speak with Dee, a man in Wayne County held a horse auction drawing in about 600 people. An employee at a Menards in Eastern Iowa, tells me business is busier than it was this time last year. People are still coming into the store for home improvement projects and mulch. “How is this essential?” He asks. Menards has corporate policies to minimize the risk. There are Xs on the floor in the check out aisles to encourage customers to socially distance themselves, but, “it’s hard” he says.

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And who is responsible? At her news conferences, Gov. Reynolds places the responsibility fully on the shoulders of Iowans who are still going out. “Stay home,” she says repeatedly, while refusing to issue a shelter-at-home order. Yet even after the warnings, it wasn’t until this week that bowling alleys and pool halls were closed. Even now, if a livestock auction includes food animals, the limit is 25 attendees, which defies the CDC recommendation against gatherings of 10 or more people.

Stephanie Bond, the public information officer for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, fields complaints about restaurants. Bond explains they handle complaints by calling up the restaurants and talking to them. Specific questions about what those conversations entail were not answered. Bond also noted that people can also call the police if they think a restaurant is defying the governor’s orders. But the punishment is a simple misdemeanor. Additionally, Legal Aid lawyers are providing pro bono for employees to who feel at risk. The number to reach them is 1-800-332-0419.

But for Dee, if she reports her employer, she risks her job, even talking to me was a risk. But if she goes into work, she risks her life. She’s stuck in a place where businesses mandate impossible orders and a government does nothing to stop people from going out — and the virus still is out there. So, she keeps making sandwiches, hoping she doesn’t get sick.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513

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