As more Iowa cities and counties fall into the ‘red zone,’ Reynolds makes another call for ‘normalcy’

Gov. Kim Reynolds takes the podium for her Sept. 10 COVID-19 press conference. — video still

“I would continue to say, as we learn to live with COVID-19 until we have a vaccine, we have to learn to live with it,” Gov. Kim Reynolds declared at her news conference on Thursday. “And we have to start to bring some normalcy into our lives.”

Reynolds said this in response to a question about Iowa State University announcing last week that it had reversed its decision to allow fans to attend the Cyclones’ Sept. 12 game against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

ISU’s decision to ban fans was announced about two hours after Reynolds publicly defended the university’s original decision to let 25,000 attend the game in Jack Trice Stadium. Reynolds said last week that she believed that it would be safe to have that many fans in the stadium, but concluded her remarks by saying, “Don’t go, if you don’t think it’s safe, don’t go.”

During her news conference on Thursday, Reynolds said she stood by the remarks she made last week about the game.

Also like last week, the governor repeated her opposition to face mask mandates.

Asked if she believed that mandating masks might send a clear message to Iowans about the need to take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, Reynolds said, “No, I don’t think so. I think the goal is to do what we can to reduce the spread of the virus.”

A mask mandate isn’t needed for that, according to the governor, because, “I trust Iowans to do the right thing, and I think they are doing the right thing.”

The latest report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force issued to states on Sunday, but not released by the Iowa Department of Public Health until Wednesday, did suggest Iowa is doing better compared to other states than it was during the previous week. According to the report, Iowa has the third fastest growth in the number of COVID-19 among states. In its previous report, the task force listed Iowa as the state with the fastest rate of increase in cases.

Although Iowa’s relative ranking among the states improved in the new report, the number of cities and counties listed as having severe virus spread increased in the new report. The previous report, published on Aug. 31, listed 28 counties and 10 metro areas as being in the “red zone,” which is any area with more than 100 new cases COVID-19 per 100,000 residents and an average positivity rate in COVID-19 tests of greater than 10 percent. In the latest report, 32 counties and 12 metro areas are in the red zone.

“The following three counties had the highest number of new cases over the last 3 weeks: 1. Polk County, 2. Johnson County, and 3. Story County,” the new report said. “These counties represent 38.9% of new cases in Iowa.”

Previous reports have called for a statewide mask mandate, which Reynolds has consistently rejected. The new report focused on schools and virus transmission, and called for mask mandates in counties and metro areas where school employees or students have tested positive for the virus. The governor was not asked about this specific recommendation during her press conference.

The Iowa Department of Education does not recommend masks in schools, and its previously published guidance specifically discouraged schools and school districts from promoting the use of masks. Many districts, including Iowa City Community Schools and Cedar Rapids Community Schools, have decided independently to require masks or other face coverings in schools.

During the news conference, a reporter pointed out to Reynolds that the two states that have moved ahead of Iowa in the ranking of states with the fastest growing number of COVID-19 cases — North Dakota and South Dakota — also do not have statewide mask mandates (although both states allow local governments to create mandates, which Iowa does not). Reynolds dismissed the suggestion that a lack of mask mandates played a role in the virus spread problems in those states or Iowa.

“But it fluctuates,” the governor said of the data that supports the task force’s ranking of states. “It’s a snapshot in time.”

Reynolds said the data compiled by the Iowa Department of Public Health allow her to know what is driving the new cases in the state and supports her decision not require face coverings, because it shows the surge in cases is largely confined to young people.

The governor said the behavior of young people gathering in groups is the problem, and a mask mandate wouldn’t help.

“When they’re socializing and doing what they’re doing, they’re not necessarily wearing a mask,” Reynolds said.

To limit socializing that might lead to the spread of COVID-19, the task force recommended closing bars in 61 counties. The previous report made the same recommendation. The governor has closed bars in six counties.

It’s worth noting that Reynolds’ comments during her news conference on Thursday were focused on a wider range of “young people” than her remarks on Aug. 27, when she announced the bar closures.

“Much of the spread [of COVID-19] we’re seeing in Iowa continues to be tied back to young adults, even a smaller subset of age 19 to 24,” Reynolds said on Aug. 27. The governor said at that news conference, “over the last 14 days in 19 to 24-year-olds [were] 58 percent of the new cases … When we take a look at the last seven days, 69 percent of new cases in Johnson County are attributed to that age group.”

On Thursday, Reynolds took a broader view of young adults, using the age range of 18 to 40. The governor said that between Aug. 28 through Sept. 9, adults in that age range accounted for 87 percent of the new cases in Johnson County, and 50 percent of the new cases in both Polk and Linn counties.

As she has in previous weeks, the governor said she would not consider the cases among young adults unless they began affecting members of the essential workforce, such as health care workers and teachers.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, IDPH reported another 53 residents of Johnson County had tested positive for COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours. The department’s official 14-day average positivity rate for the county was 18.4 percent. Thursday was the first time the county’s 14-day average was less than 20 percent since Aug. 28.

In Linn County, IDPH confirmed another 66 cases of the virus during the same time period. The IDPH 14-day average positivity rate for Linn County on Thursday morning was 7.8 percent.

Statewide, IDPH reported another 819 cases of the COVID-19 between 10 a.m. on Thursday and 10 a.m. on Friday, increasing the total number of Iowans who have tested positive for the virus to 71,956.

The department also reported another 20 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday. As of 10 a.m. on Thursday, the state’s COVID-19 death toll stood at 1,205.

At the end of her news conference on Thursday, Reynolds was asked if she approved of Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Grassley and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver sending a letter to Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren, calling for the conference to reverse its decision to cancel its fall football season to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We have already been working with several other governors to send a letter that would effectively say the same thing,” Reynolds said. “So, hopefully that’ll be going out today or tomorrow.”

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