Starting on May 1, workers in 77 Iowa counties will have to choose between returning to jobs at which they may not feel safe and losing their unemployment benefits.
Gov. Kim Reynolds didn’t mention the possible loss of benefits when she announced the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions on businesses in 77 of the state’s 99 counties during her press conference on Monday, but Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) later sent out a press release clarifying who will qualify for unemployment.
According to IWD, there are only six acceptable reasons for a laid-off worker not return to work if asked to do so by their employer.
• If you have tested positive for COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms;
• If you have recovered but it caused medical complications rendering you unable to perform essential job duties;
• If a member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
• If you are providing care for a member of your household who was diagnosed with COVID-19;
• If you do not have childcare due to COVID-19 reasons; or
• If you do not have transportation to your place of work because of COVID-19.
“Refusing to return to work when recalled for any other reason… will be considered a ‘voluntary quit’ which would disqualify a claimant from receiving benefits,” IDW said.
It’s a dilemma “essential” workers — whether in health care, meat packing or pizza delivery — have already been facing during the pandemic.
At various points in the governor’s press conference on Monday, Reynolds and her advisers from the Iowa Department of Public Health conceded that the number of COVID-19 cases in the state continues to grow, Iowa doesn’t yet have any state-specific modeling to predict the spread of the virus and the state’s new enhanced testing program — Test Iowa — has only held two testing sessions so far, both of them in Des Moines. But none of that stopped the governor from moving forward with her plan to begin reopening parts of the state.
“The reality is we can’t stop the virus,” Reynolds said. “It will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available. Instead, we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives.”
On Friday, the governor signed a proclamation loosening restrictions on elective medical procedures and farmers markets on a statewide basis.
Most the changes Reynolds announced on Monday are limited to counties “where there is no virus activity or where virus activity has been consistently low and shown a downward trend,” according to the governor.
“Effective May 1 in 77 counties, the following businesses can chose to reopen, but must comply with certain restrictions. Restaurants, fitness centers and retail stores, previously closed may reopen at 50 percent of normal operating capacity,” Reynolds said. “Enclosed malls may reopen at 50 percent capacity, but play areas and common seating areas, including food court dining, must remain closed. Restaurants in food courts may operate on a carry-out basis.”
Although Reynolds did not mention it at the press conference, libraries in 77 counties will also be able to reopen, provided they abide by the 50 percent rule.
Asked by a reporter what she meant by 50 percent of operating capacity, Reynolds replied, “The 50 percent capacity is the 50 percent capacity of the business.”
The text of the proclamation Reynolds signed on Monday was more specific. Businesses, other than restaurants, are only allowed to admit half their maximum occupancy capacity. Restaurants are only allowed to serve 50 percent of their seating capacity.
Under the terms of the proclamation, a bar with a kitchen that prepares food qualifies as a restaurant and can reopen.
All current restrictions stay in effect in the state’s remaining 22 counties until at least May 15.
A limit of 10 people at public gatherings will remain in effect statewide, even in the 77 counties with relaxed restrictions, with one notable exception. Religious and spiritual gatherings will be exempt from the 10-person limit. This exemption is effective on a statewide basis.
Reynolds said the exemption for religious gatherings was needed because of “the significant constitutional liberties involved,” but did not elaborate on what she meant by that.
Both in the United States and worldwide, churches have been sites of significant transmission of COVID-19.
“In all cases, businesses and churches approved for reopening must also adhere to social distancing,” Reynolds said.
The proclamation qualifies that requirement, stating that businesses in the 77 counties and churches statewide must “implement reasonable measures under the circumstances of each” mall, library, business or church.
It will be up to state officials to determine if a business or church is complying with the social distancing mandate, Reynolds said at her press conference. Local officials will not have the authority to take enforcement actions without state permission.
Neither Johnson County nor Linn County is included in the 77 counties where restrictions will be relaxed on May 1. But since Iowa is one of the few states not to impose any travel restrictions during the pandemic, their residents may freely travel to any of the 77 counties.
Reynolds was asked more than once about the possibility of people traveling from counties and spreading the virus at newly reopened businesses.
“People have to be responsible,” she said. “You have to practice personal responsibility.”
Of course, asymptomatic people who are completely unaware they are infected can spread the virus as easily as someone experiencing symptoms, so it’s possible for a person behaving responsibly, according to the governor’s guidelines, to infect others. Now that there’s an incentive for people to travel to the 77 counties to shop or to dine, such spreading of the virus becomes more likely.
For example, Cedar County (with 28 cases of COVID-19) is among the 77 counties. It’s bordered by four counties still considered hotspots — Linn (613 cases), Johnson (437 cases), Muscatine (311 cases) and Scott (216 cases) — whose residents may want to visit Cedar County to shop or dine.
Asked a second time about the problem of spreading the virus from counties with numerous cases to counties with few, Reynolds again said she didn’t think it would be problem.
“I have confidence in Iowans that they are going to continue to be a part of the solution, they’re going to continue to do the right thing and we’re going to continue see, hopefully, positive signs of that and we’ll be able to build on what we’re already doing,” she said.
Questions about the governor’s criteria for relaxing restrictions started to be raised almost as soon as she made her announcement.
“Hardin County [one of the 77 chosen counties] has absolutely NOT seen a downward trend,” Tony Baranowski of the Iowa Falls Times Citizen tweeted after the governor’s press conference. “We’ve had more new cases in the last 7 days than in any 7 day period.”
Hardin County has absolutely NOT seen a downward trend. We've had more new cases in the last 7 days than in any 7 day period. Our coverage here- https://t.co/D28HfzeFR8 @HardinCountyIa @TimesCitizen https://t.co/UPlog3rS0Z
— Tony Baranowski (@tonyapb3) April 27, 2020
Rep. Abby Finkenauer, the Democrat who represents Iowa’s 1st District in Congress, was blunt in her reaction.
Gov announces opening of churches, malls, retail, fitness centers in 77 counties as if every county is its own island and then says if she sees a spike will have to consider closing things down again … what would she call over 2,000 more cases over last week? Unbelievable
— Abby Finkenauer (@Abby4Iowa) April 27, 2020
Finkenauer called for the governor to issue a shelter-in-place order for the state on March 27. Reynolds, of course, refused to do so. Iowa is one of only five states not to issue either a partial or statewide shelter-in-place order.
Reynolds said at her press conference that waiting until conditions allow her to relax restrictions on a statewide basis would be unfair to the “15 [counties] that had no [virus] activity.”
Since community spread of COVID-19 was first confirmed on March 15, Reynolds and her advisers have repeatedly said all Iowans should assume the virus is present in their community. Also, there aren’t 15 counties that haven’t reported cases of COVID-19, there are 14.
Pocahontas County, one of the counties Reynolds was referring to, reported its first case of COVID-19 over the weekend.
On Monday, IDPH reported another 349 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including 40 residents of Linn County and 11 residents of Johnson County. The newly reported infections bring the state’s total number of confirmed cases to 5,868.
IDPH also reported another nine deaths from the virus.
Newly reported deaths by county
• Black Hawk County, 2 older adults (61-80 years)
• Bremer County, 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Dubuque County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)
• Polk County, 3 elderly adults (81+)
• Poweshiek County, 1 elderly adult (81+)
• Washington County, 1 elderly adult (81+)
One hundred and twenty-seven Iowans have now died of the virus, according to IDPH.
Over the weekend, the department also reported that three more long-term care facilities have outbreaks of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total number of such outbreaks to 16.
Also, on Monday, the Iowa Department of Corrections reported two more inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville, better known as Oakdale Prison, have tested positive for the virus. So far, 15 inmates and five staff members at Oakdale have tested positive.
On Monday afternoon, Black Hawk County Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said 1,346 of the county’s residents have now tested positive for COVID-19. She estimated that 90 percent of the cases are related to an outbreak at the Tyson meat processing plant in Waterloo.
Because there is a 24-hour lag in cases being reported and IDPH makes that information public, the department currently lists the number of confirmed cases in Black Hawk County as 844.
Black Hawk County officials spent two weeks asking Tyson to temporarily close the plant to help limit the spread of the virus before the company did so on April 22. County officials also pleaded with Gov. Reynolds to use her authority to close the plant, after the extent of the outbreak began to become apparent, but the governor refused to do so.
The governor has repeatedly said she believed Tyson was doing a good job of protecting its employees, based on conversations she’d had with the CEO of Tyson Foods and the Waterloo plant’s manager.
At her press conference, Reynolds IDPH would continue to carefully monitor virus activity in the 77 counties where restrictions will be relaxed on May 1.
“If we do see an uptick, and we start to see some of the numbers really start to spike, then we’re going to have to take a look at maybe dialing back some of those things,” Reynolds said. “We’re hoping that we don’t have to go there.”