Unsafe gatherings of new and returning University of Iowa students caused a surge of COVID-19 cases in Johnson County in August, which in turn led Gov. Kim Reynolds to include Johnson in her emergency proclamation closing bars, distilleries and breweries in six counties on Aug. 27. This order was lifted in Johnson County on Oct. 5.
While rumors circulated about several area businesses failing to follow this order to a T, only one Johnson County business received a reprimand from the state: Bo-James on East Washington Street in downtown Iowa City.
A complaint was filed against Bo-James (along with five businesses in other counties affected by Gov. Reynolds’ temporary closure order) by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division in September. On Tuesday, Bo-James and the state announced a settlement agreement that does not require the business to admit to any wrongdoing but suspends their liquor license for 48 hours — from 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 25, to 6 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27. If Bo-James is caught selling or serving alcoholic beverages during that time, it stands to lose its liquor license permanently.
Under Reynolds’ August proclamation, businesses that primarily sell alcohol were required to close down, and restaurants were required to stop selling alcohol after 10 p.m. A bar and restaurant like Bo-James could only stay open if it was making 50 percent or less of its monthly revenue from alcohol sales and all customers who purchased an alcoholic beverage were also served food.
Bo-James’s alleged violations occurred on or near Aug. 28, according to state officials. They said the business failed to maintain social distancing measures, didn’t serve food to all customers who purchased alcoholic beverages and allowed customers to roam throughout the space, in violation of Reynolds’ order.
In the settlement released this week, Bo-James owner Leah Cohen denied that social distancing rules were violated. She did not contest the food-related violations.
Bars reopened on Monday in Johnson County, here was the scene Friday night around downtown Iowa City. #COVID19 @presscitizen @RegisterVisuals Photos: https://t.co/9PeXnRmHFi pic.twitter.com/FSZuCYjXgP
— Joseph Cress (@josephwcress) October 10, 2020
The first weekend after bars in Johnson County got the OK to reopen, hundreds of young people flocked to downtown Iowa City, lining up outside the Sports Column, Brothers, Field House, Bo-James and others, often in much closer proximity than encouraged by the sidewalk markers designed to keep patrons socially distanced.
Iowa City Nighttime Mayor Joe Reilly told the Daily Iowan that these downtown businesses could encourage safe behavior in their lines outside, but they ultimately do not have authority to enforce mask-wearing or social distancing until the patrons reach the bouncers. Iowa City does still have an active mask mandate for public spaces such as downtown sidewalks, violations of which are subject to citations from Iowa City and University of Iowa Police.
Downtown bars, by most accounts, were doing their best to follow social distancing guidelines required by the state (and in their pledges to the Iowa City Downtown District) inside while trying to get back to business after weeks of full or partial closures, and recent rent payments.
Now that the 14-day average positivity rate has lowered since August’s spike — even as the pandemic statewide continues to hit grim records and milestones — most Iowa City businesses say they’re committed to keeping numbers in check, and are resentful towards those who aren’t.
When one business is more lax in their enforcement of social distancing or mask-wearing, it becomes harder for other businesses to expect caution from customers, according to Jason Zeman, CEO of the Corridor Entertainment Group (which operates businesses such as Studio 13, the Yacht Club and Eden Lounge).
“Before [bars were allowed to reopen], we’d have four to five places that weren’t doing it, and everyone else was,” Zeman told the Daily Iowan. “It was much more difficult to enforce the rules compared to when everybody does the same thing and we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing, the best we can.”
When this is over, I’m going to throw the biggest fucking party this town has ever seen! #IowaFuckingCity
— Bo-James Bar (@BojamesBar) September 18, 2020