Reynolds allows almost all businesses and outdoor venues to reopen, eliminates 10-person cap on gatherings

Joonas Tikkanen/Flickr

Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state won’t “prioritize” the lives of Iowans over their “livelihoods,” just before announcing her latest relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions. According to the governor, “Iowa is on the road to recovery.”

“For our state, recovery means striking a balance between getting life and business back to normal, while continuing to manage virus activity,” Reynolds said at her press conference on Tuesday. “Our recovery is contingent upon our ability to protect both the lives and livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other, we must prioritize both to move forward.”

The governor then discussed the further easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

“As I announced last week, effective on May 28, bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries and other social or fraternal clubs may reopen following the same public health measures as restaurants, including limiting normal operating capacity to 50 percent and social distancing groups of six feet,” Reynolds said.

The proclamation signed by the governor on Tuesday relaxes one major requirement restaurants have had to meet to resume serving dine-in meals: Instead of limiting parties at tables to six or fewer, up to 10 people may now sit together.

Self-service of any kind is still prohibited at restaurants and bars. Reopened establishments will also have to “implement reasonable measures under the circumstances” of each restaurant or bar to limit the spread of COVID-19, according to the new proclamation.

Live musical performances will also be permitted at restaurants and bars, although bands, “must also follow social distancing protocols with members of the group and the audience,” the governor said.

Other changes included in the proclamation will take effect on June 1.

“Speedways and racetracks can open events to spectators,” Reynolds said. “Outdoor performance venues, such as amphitheaters and grandstands can hold live performances. Casinos and gaming facilities may reopen, as well as amusement parks, bowling alleys, pool halls and arcades.”

All of those businesses will be restricted to serving only 50 percent of their maximum capacity as well as following public health guidelines regarding hygiene and social distancing.

Smoking will still be permitted in casinos, the governor said.

There are three types of businesses still barred from reopening: theaters that feature live performances indoors, including any indoor performance venue other than a restaurant or bar; indoor playgrounds and children’s play centers; and adult daycare facilities and senior citizen centers. Those businesses will remain closed through June 17, unless the governor decides otherwise.

The new proclamation also eliminates the cap on public gatherings.

“Also effective on June 1, social, community and recreational, leisure and sports gatherings of more than 10 people will be permitted again,” Reynolds said. “Groups and individuals attending must maintain six feet social distancing and venues are limited to 50 percent of normal operating capacity or the level necessary to maintain adequate distancing, and also must follow social distancing, hygiene and public health measures.”

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“This proclamation also permits practices, games and competitions for youth and adult baseball, softball, and individual sports, such as running, biking, swimming, tennis and golf to resume with appropriate social distancing, hygiene and public health measures in place.”

A few hours before the governor made this announcement at her press conference, the organizers of Iowa Games announced they were canceling most of the Olympic-style competition’s summer 2020 events, including baseball and softball competition.

“We could not justify holding the Games while putting our athletes, coaches, volunteers and staff at risk,” Chuck Long, Iowa Games CEO/Executive Director, said in a statement.

At her press conference, Reynolds said she will not be extending “the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, and other debt-collection activities” that expires at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday. The moratorium has been in place since March 19. Approximately 700 eviction hearings were already scheduled when it went into effect.

“I know that some Iowans who have experienced a reduction in income due to COVID-19 may have difficulty paying their rent or mortgage payments in the months to come,” Reynolds said. “To provide continued relief to those families, I will be allocating funding through the state’s allocation of the federal CARES Act funds for the creation of a COVID-19 eviction and foreclosure prevention program, which will be administered by the Iowa Finance Authority.”

“The program applies to residential evictions and foreclosures and will be available to eligible Iowans who have experienced a documented loss of income due to COVID-19 and are unable to pay their rent or mortgage payment.”

Planning for the program isn’t finished yet, even though the moratorium ends in less than 48 hours. The governor said details about it — including income limits needed to qualify, the types of assistance available and how to apply — will be released “soon.”

The governor will also allow the moratorium on utility disconnections to expire, although she did not mention that at her press conference. Disconnection proceedings can begin again on Thursday.

Experts have warned that as states reopen, they are likely to see increased spread of COVID-19. Gov. Reynolds was asked what actions the state will take to control spikes in virus activity in counties, other than testing and contact tracing.

In her reply, the governor spoke at length about the importance of testing and contact tracing, but did not mention any other actions that would be taken.

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 104 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19, including two residents of Johnson County and two residents of Linn County. That is the lowest number of new cases reported in the state during a 24-hour period since April 15, and only the second time in May the number new cases reported has been below 200. The total number of Iowans who have tested positive for the virus was 17,661 as of 10 a.m. on Tuesday.

IDPH also reported another eight people have died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll from the virus to 464.

Another outbreak at a long-term-care facility was reported by IDPH on Tuesday, bringing the total number of such outbreaks to 37. IDPH only identifies cases at long-term-care facilities that meet its definition of an outbreak: three or more residents testing positive for the virus. That definition is stricter than ones used in other states, and stricter than IDPH’s own definition of a flu outbreak at a long-term-care facility, which only requires one resident to test positive and one other resident on the same floor to display symptoms a respiratory disease.

Despite repeated questions from reporters, IDPH has never explained why a stricter definition of an outbreak is appropriate for long-term care facilities when COVID-19 is more easily transmissible and more lethal than the flu.

IDPH does, however, use the same definition for flu and COVID-19 outbreaks at businesses. For the department to publicly disclose the spread of the virus at a business, 10 percent of its workforce at a single location must be absent due to illness, test positive for the virus or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Hundreds of workers must test positive at a large facility like a meat processing plant, before the public is informed.

Reynolds was asked on Tuesday if there have been any more outbreaks of COVID-19 at businesses since the five — four meat processing plants and one wind turbine blade factory — reported by IDPH during the governor’s press conference on May 5. Reynolds turned the question over IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter.

“Sorry, I didn’t bring the numbers with me,” Reisetter said. “But we have confirmed two additional outbreaks at Purdue Farms One in Sioux Center and one in Sioux City.”

Reisetter characterized the two pork processing plants as “smaller” facilities.

“A spokesperson for the company says the testing was done three weeks ago, on the 4th and 5th of May,” Radio Iowa reported on Tuesday afternoon. “A previous company statement indicated 425 people were tested and less than 20% tested positive.”

“According to Iowa Department of Public Health information released today, 69 workers at the Perdue Farms plant in Sioux Center tested positive and tests confirmed another 20 workers at the company’s plant in Sioux City had the virus.”

Reynolds was asked if IDPH would start listing business outbreaks on its COVID-19 site the same way it list long-term care facility outbreaks, so the public could keep track of them. So far, the department has only disclosed business outbreaks in response to direct questions from reporters.

“We can take a look at that. Right now there isn’t [that information on the COVID-19 site], but I trust the media to do their job and continue to ask the questions,” Reynolds said.

The governor then said, as she often does, that her administration has been “as transparent as we can in providing Iowans with about as much information as can.”