Gov. Kim Reynolds is eliminating the state’s few remaining significant COVID-19 restrictions, even though the Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed earlier this week that a more contagious variant of the virus is circulating in the state.
On Sunday, the state’s limited mask mandate will end, and the restrictions on the size of gatherings and the number of customers permitted in bars or restaurants, as well as the requirement that bars and restaurants separate groups by at least six feet, will be lifted. The governor announced the limited mask mandate on Nov. 16, along with restrictions on gathering size and restaurants and bars, during a televised speech in which she said, “the pandemic in Iowa is worse than it has ever been.”
Those limits on the size of gatherings and the number of patrons allowed in bars and restaurants had already been relaxed, but the mask mandate — which only applied to people who would be in public buildings for longer than 15 minutes and were unable stay six feet away from others — and the requirement for six feet of separation between groups in bars and restaurants remained in effect throughout the two-and-a-half months since they were imposed.
The governor dropped the virus mitigation efforts as quietly as it is possible to change statewide regulations. Her office sent out a news release announcing she had signed a new public health emergency declaration just after 4 p.m. on a Friday. In the past, such news releases contained a plain text version of the proclamation, allowing for easy keyword searching. The news release on Friday didn’t.
The email from the governor’s office linked to a PDF of the official proclamation. It was a non-searchable PDF, meaning anyone who was reading the release and wanted to make sure the eliminated COVID-19 restrictions were not included in the proclamation had to also carefully read the 22 pages of legal text.
In place of the mandates included in previous proclamations, the new one states that Gov. Reynolds “strongly encourage[s] that all businesses or other employers remaining open with in-person operations take reasonable measures under the circumstances of each establishment to ensure the health of employees, patrons, and members of the public.”
The proclamation also “strongly encourage[s] vulnerable Iowans … to continue to limit their activities outside their homes,” and “strongly encourage[s] that a gathering organizer or host take reasonable measures under the circumstance of each gathering to ensure the health of participants and members of the public.”
Although the levels of virus activity in Iowa are lower than they were in the middle of November when the eliminated mandates were introduced, new cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the virus are still substantially higher than they were prior to the surge that began in late summer.
Only two states, Alabama and Idaho, had higher COVID-19 test positivity rates over the last seven days than Iowa, according to the Washington Post. The Post also found that Iowa reported the lowest number of COVID-19 test results per capita of any state over the last week.
Reynolds did not mention her decision to drop the mitigation mandates during her news conference on Thursday. Most of the discussions of COVID-19 on Thursday focused on the state’s faltering vaccination program. According to data from the CDC, Iowa has the third-lowest rate of vaccinations per capita.
“We’re making progress, but I recognize the vaccine process isn’t as fast or as easy as many of us would like it to be,” Reynolds said at the beginning of her news conference.
The governor said she and IDPH had been examining the problems that some counties and providers were having with administering vaccinations.
“We reached out to our counties and our providers, we’re going to put some new metrics in place, we’re going to eliminate a lot of the uncertainty that they’ve been dealing with,” Reynolds said. The governor said she expects “to see positive results soon.”
Her actions run contrary to the recommendations of public health experts, especially since the Super Bowl is happening on Sunday. The experts are concerned that Super Bowl parties and people crowding into bars to watch the game will create environments in which COVID-19 will easily spread.
“You don’t want parties with people that you haven’t had much contact with,” Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned during a Wednesday appearance on NBC’s Today show. “You just don’t know if they’re infected, so as difficult as that is, at least this time around, just lay low and cool it.”
Reynolds signed the new proclamation exactly one week after she signed a bill requiring all schools to offer 100 percent in-person instruction to any student whose parents request it. Some of the state’s largest school districts had been offering 50 percent in-person instruction supplemented by online instruction, in order to limit the number of people in school buildings and facilitate social distancing. That bill Reynolds signed into law last Friday effectively forced those districts to drop that hybrid model.
The WHO and CDC recommend school not reopen for in-person instruction until an area has a 14-day positivity average of 5 percent or lower. On Friday, only 12 of Iowa’s 99 counties met that standard, according to IDPH statistics.