Local business leaders urge people to wear face masks as Johnson County sees a record-setting increase in COVID-19 cases

The Irving Webster statue on Iowa Avenue in downtown Iowa City, wearing the recommended COVID-19 protection. June 24, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“Rest assured, we’re at a very, very critical moment — a pivotal point, if you will — where we’re seeing a very large spike in cases in Johnson County,” University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said on Thursday. “Every single day for the last week, we’ve seen this increase.”

Gunasekaran was speaking at a Project Better Together press conference on the Ped Mall on Thursday afternoon. Project Better Together is a group of community and business leaders created in May by the Iowa City Area Business Partnership, Iowa City Area Development Group, Think Iowa City and the Iowa City Downtown District to address issues created by COVID-19 and plan for the area’s economy after the pandemic subsides. The press conference was called in response to the recent surge in new cases of the virus in an effort to encourage people to wear face coverings and practice social distancing.

Video still of UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran speaking during the Project Better Together press conference on the Ped Mall, June 25, 2020.

At 10 a.m. on Friday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 51 residents of Johnson County had tested positive for COVID-19. It was the ninth day in a row with double digit increases in the number of new cases. It is also the longest streak of double digit increases in new cases the county has experienced since COVID-19 was confirmed in Iowa on March 8.

The new cases bring the county’s total number of confirmed cases to 884. IDPH also reported on Thursday morning that another resident of Johnson County has died from COVID-19. A total of nine people in Johnson County have died from the virus so far.

The 51 new cases reported on Thursday make the second-highest number of new cases reported in Johnson County on a single day, only surpassed by the 69 cases reported on April 21. Before the current surge began on June 17, Johnson County had not had more than nine new cases in a single day since May 7.

“We’ve seen this increase, particularly amongst a new demographic, between the age of 20 and 30,” Gunasekaran said during the press conference. “And we see that there has not been as much social distancing and as much compliance with face covering as we want to see.”

Another speaker, Johnson County Director of Public Health Dave Koch, pointed out that people in that demographic typically have less severe symptoms and are hospitalized at a lower rate.

“But the important aspect to remember is that these are also individuals that are working in our long-term care facilities, working in our hospitals, working in our daycares, visiting their parents, visiting their grandparents and often unknowingly potentially spreading the virus,” Koch said.

All the speakers urged people to wear face masks and practice social distancing, but urging is all most can do. Business owners can require customers to wear masks, and the University of Iowa will require everyone entering a campus building to wear a face covering during its fall semester, but city and county governments in Iowa don’t have the legal authority to order people to wear face masks in public. Only the governor does.

Gov. Reynolds was asked during her June 18 press conference if she would give local governments the authority to order people to wear face coverings in public, if their communities are experiencing a spike in virus activity.

The governor said it wasn’t necessary.

“We’ve said all along that individuals are responsible,” Reynolds said. “I trust Iowans. I trust our businesses, they’re doing the right thing to not only take care of their employees, but to also take care of their customers and their clients that come in. And so Iowans need to decide that.”

That same day, the governor signed a bill into law that makes it almost impossible for Iowans to sue businesses or other public venues whose failure to take proper preventative measure results in people becoming infected with COVID-19.

Reynolds was asked on Tuesday if she would reinstate any of the COVID-19 restrictions she has lifted in counties like Johnson, Scott and Dubuque that are experiencing a spike in cases.

“Nope, there’s no need to do that,” the governor said. “I mean, we can really monitor and watch it, and things are heading in the right direction, and we can continue to do that, but right now, things are looking good, and we’re hoping that Iowans continue to do what they’ve been doing, and we’ll continue to see our numbers decrease.”

Reynolds said the overall trends in virus activity in the state remain positive and recommended people focus on statistics like hospital bed availability. She added that the surge in new cases is among younger people, who are unlikely to be hospitalized because of the virus.

Speaking about Jonson County’s sharp rise in cases during the press conference on the Ped Mall, Gunasekaran said “if this trend continues for a few more weeks, or a few more months, we will lose the ability to control the situation.”

Gunasekaran said it is possible to reverse the trend through use of face masks, social distancing and proper hygiene practices. “But that’s going to require vigilance on everyone’s part.”

“I’m actually optimistic that we can make this happen,” he concluded.

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