The Iowa Department of Public Health reported on Saturday that another 214 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19. It was only the second time in the past two weeks the department has reported fewer than 300 new cases in its daily updates.
Among the new cases were three residents of Johnson County and six residents of Linn County. According to IDPH, 11,671 Iowans have now tested positive for the virus. That number includes 549 residents of Johnson County and 819 residents of Linn County.
IDPH also reported another outbreak in a long-term care facility, bringing the total number of such outbreaks to 29.
Nine more deaths from the virus were reported on Saturday. This week, IDPH changed how it displays information on its COVID-19 website, and no longer discloses the names of the counties where the deceased lived.
Starting on Friday, tanning salons, medical spas, campgrounds, drive-in movie theaters and golf clubhouses were able reopen statewide, provided they follow guidelines from IDPH. Dental procedures were also allowed to resume across the state.
Other COVID-19 restrictions in the 22 counties where they had remained in full effect were also relaxed on Friday. Malls and retail businesses were allowed to reopen, but were required to restrict customers to 50 percent of their maximum occupancy capacity and follow other IDPH guidelines. Fitness centers are allowed to admit one client at a time for a session, on an appointment-only basis.
The changes were included in a public health proclamation Gov. Reynolds signed on Wednesday. Reynolds had offered no public indication she was going to relax the restrictions, which were scheduled to run through May 15. The governor did not hold a press conference to announced the changes. She was in Washington D.C, meeting with President Trump that day.
If laid-off workers at a newly reopened business are asked to return to work, they must do so or they will lose their unemployment benefits. According to Iowa Workforce Development, which administers unemployment benefits in the state, there are six acceptable reasons for a laid-off worker not return to work if asked to do so by their employer.
• If you have tested positive for COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms;
• If you have recovered but it caused medical complications rendering you unable to perform essential job duties;
• If a member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
• If you are providing care for a member of your household who was diagnosed with COVID-19;
• If you do not have childcare due to COVID-19 reasons; or
• If you do not have transportation to your place of work because of COVID-19.
A worker who can’t cite one of those six reasons is considered a “voluntary quit,” according to IWD. Iowa law does allow a worker to quit a job and receive unemployment if a workplace is unsafe, but it can be difficult for the worker to prove working conditions are too dangerous.
“We do have a provision in our unemployment code that allows an individual to quit a job, if they feel that their workplace is unsafe,” IWD Director Beth Townsend said at the governor’s press conference on April 30. “However, it takes more than a mere assertion by the employee to establish this to be true. If an employer establishes that they have taken the necessary steps, such as follow industry standards established by OSHA … It may be difficult to establish a good-faith basis to quit due to safety concerns.”
In reviewing cases, IWD starts from the premise that an employer is already making reasonable efforts to ensure safety.
“We know that employers have always had strong motivations to create the safest working place possible, and they are taking those necessary and additional steps to prevent the spread of the virus in their workforce,” Townsend said.
Challenging a denial of benefits can be a long process.
In order to successfully challenge a denial of unemployment benefits, an appeal must be filed with the UI Appeals Bureau within 10 days of the denial. A hearing before an administrative law judge is then scheduled. During the hearing — usually conducted via teleconference, even before the pandemic — both the worker and the former employer testify and may present evidence. The administrative law judge’s decision will be mailed to both parties within 14 days.
If the judge upholds the denial, an applicant can appeal that decision to the Employment Appeal Board of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. The board doesn’t hold hearings, but reviews the case as it was presented to the administrative law judge. The board usually issues its decision 45 to 75 days after it receives the notice of an appeal.
If an appeal is rejected by the board, the worker can then file a lawsuit in state district court.
Workers won’t receive unemployment benefit payments while an appeal is ongoing, but if successful, will be awarded an amount equal to those unpaid benefits at the end of the process.
Gov. Reynolds has repeatedly expressed confidence that the reopening of businesses, despite warning from experts it might cause a new wave of infections, will go smoothly and benefit everyone in the state.
“Iowans are meant to work,” Reynolds said on Monday. “And we need to open back up, but have to do it in a safe and responsible manner.”
When the governor signed her first proclamation relaxing COVID-19 restriction on April 24, allowing elective medical procedures to resume and farmers markets to open, she pointed out there were still 15 counties where no cases of the virus had been reported. Two weeks later, there are now only six counties with no confirmed cases of COVID-19.