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Another 344 Iowans test positive for COVID-19, as the state prepares to reopen bars

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Taps at Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported at 10 a.m. on Monday that another 344 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including five residents of Johnson County and eight residents of Linn County. The total number of confirmed cases in the state as of 10 a.m. was 17,557.

IDPH also reported another seven deaths from the virus. The newly reported deaths bring the state’s official COVID-19 death toll to 456.

Gov. Reynolds has said she will take the next step in relaxing the state’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions this week. The only firm decision she has announced so far is that bars will be allowed to reopen, provided they operate at 50 percent of their maximum occupancy limit and make reasonable efforts to follow the guidelines IDPH has created for restaurants.

After she announced at her Wednesday press conference that bars would be allowed to reopen, Reynolds was asked how intoxicated people can be expected to responsibly practice social distancing.

“We’re going to work with our business owners,” the governor replied. “We’re going to work with law enforcement and they have said they’re going to educate Iowans.”

Reynolds said police officers would encourage people to adhere to “the guidelines that are put in place.” As “a last resort,” the police may issue citations.

“But I believe, you know, we’re all in this together, and I believe that Iowans can be responsible and we can do this,” the governor said.

Reynolds added that there will be some people who won’t behave responsibly, “but that applies to anything and everything.”

According to data from the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division (ABD), the closure of bars ordered by the governor on March 17 seems to have sparked a surge in retail liquor sales.

“The division sells liquor to off-premises retailers — such as liquor stores, grocery stores, and convenience stores — and cannot track individual purchases of liquor by consumers,” the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported. “However, sales data for March 16 through April 1 indicates an 82% increase in the number of cases of 1.75 liter liquor products sold by ABD to off-premises retailers compared to the same time frame in 2019.”

“Case sales of standard-sized 750 milliliter bottles increased by 51%. That surge is believed to reflect increased by-the-bottle purchases by consumers.”

The question of what will happen with those bottles came up at the governor’s press conference on Friday. The suspension of Iowa’s “bottle bill” that was included in the March 17 emergency public health emergency proclamation is set to expire on Wednesday. Reynolds was asked on Friday if she plans to keep the suspension of the bill in place or allow it to expire, and require supermarkets and other stores that sells beverages in bottles and cans to accept returns and refund the five-cent deposit to customers.

“We’re reviewing the entire declaration, and we’ll be making those decisions moving forward,” the governor said. Reynolds added that she doesn’t “anticipate removing a lot of those regulatory amendments that we’ve put in place.”

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In addition to suspending the bottle bill, those regulatory amendments also suspend such things as certain licensing requirements and the state mandates requiring some businesses to complete background checks before hiring employees.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association, a longtime opponent of the bottle bill, has filed a petition with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources seeking permanent changes to the 1979 law. According to the Gazette, the association’s petition seeks five major changes to the current law.

• Allowing them to divert containers to redemption centers within 15 miles of grocery stores. Current rules allow them to refuse containers by referring customers to an approved redemption center no more than a 10-minute drive from the store;

• Designating the Iowa DNR and Attorney General’s Office to enforce the part of the bottle bill that requires any retailer selling beverages in redeemable containers take returns. Many non-grocery retailers, discount stores and big-box stores tell customers to take the containers to grocery stores;

• Ensuring that every business that sells beverages in redeemable containers comply with the law;

• Ensuring that customers get their nickel deposit back. To cover overhead costs, some redemption centers are paying customers just 4 cents per container. That’s illegal, but many consumers are willing to accept it and the law is rarely enforced;

• Eliminating a provision that approved redemptions centers must agree in advance to take containers from stores asking for their services.

The bottle bill was passed by bipartisan majorities in 1979, at the urging of Republican Gov. Robert Ray. Ray frequently cited the bill as his favorite legislative accomplishment from his five terms as governor. In recent years, Republicans in the state legislature have attempted to repeal the bottle and can redemption law. A bill that would eliminate the mandated redemption program by 2023 was introduced in the legislature during this year’s legislative session.

The bottle bill, however, remains popular with the public. Ever poll done regarding the law shows large majorities support it.


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