Reynolds visits White House, signs order further relaxing restrictions in Iowa

Gov. Reynolds meets with President Trump and other governors and Trump administration officials at the White House, May 6, 2020.

Gov. Kim Reynolds traveled to the White House for talks with President Trump on Wednesday. During her press conference the day prior, Reynolds described the White House invitation as “kind of a last-minute ask.”

“I’ll be going to give him an update on what we’re doing in Iowa, and really talk about how testing and case investigation, our assessment, really working with our processing plants and how we tried to be proactive in that respect, to give him an update on that,” Reynolds said on Tuesday. “And to thank them for their assistance throughout the process.”

The governor said she also planned to speak with Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force during her visit.

But whether or not the task force will continue to do its work has been up in the air for last 48 hours.

On Tuesday morning, many news organizations reported that senior White House officials had said the task force would soon disband, as the president turned his full attention to reopening businesses and boosting the economy. Vice President Pence confirmed later in the day the administration was looking at phasing out the task force by the end of the month.

“I think we’re starting to look at the Memorial Day window, early June window as a time when we could begin to transition back to having our agencies … begin to manage our national response in a more traditional manner,” Pence told reporters.

Speaking at an event in Arizona on Tuesday, President Trump said, “So I think that, as far as the task force, Mike Pence and the task force have done a great job. But we’re now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening. And we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”

Asked why he would disband the task force while the country in still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump said it was time to move on.

“Well, because we can’t keep our country closed for the next five years, you know,” he told reporters. “You can say there might be a recurrence [of COVID-19] and there might be, you know. Most doctors, or some doctors, say that it will happen and it will be a flame, and we’re going to put the flame out.”

The president’s reply continued but never actually answered the question.

“I view our great citizens of this country, to a certain extent and to a large extent, as warriors,” he said. “They’re warriors. We can’t keep our country closed, we have to open our country.”

Trump claimed some doctors had told him the country would have to be “closed” for another 18 months to two years due to COVID-19. The president didn’t say who those doctors were who made such unlikely-sounding suggestions, but said the American people wouldn’t stand for two more years of the current COVID-19 restrictions.

“The people of our country are warriors,” Trump continued. “And I’m looking at it. I’m not saying anything is perfect. And yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

But on Wednesday, Trump reversed himself, saying the task force would continue “indefinitely,” because it is popular with the American public.

“I thought we could wind it down sooner, but I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding down,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “It is appreciated by the public.”

Although Reynolds has never called Iowans “warriors,” she has routinely said things similar to what Trump said when discussing her reopening of the state.

“I want people to know that probably 50 to 70 percent of the United States population is projected to get this [COVID-19],” the governor said at an April 21 press conference. “So, people are going to get it. It is very contagious, especially in large gatherings. And 80 percent of individuals that get it are only going to experience mild or no symptoms. So, we shouldn’t lose sight of that as well.”

“The reality is we can’t stop the virus,” Reynolds said when she announced on April 27, restrictions would be relaxed in 77 counties. “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.”

“You just can’t look at it from one isolated perspective, you have to look at the health and the well-being, and the mental well-being, the livelihood of Iowans,” the governor said on May 4, defending her decision to loosen restrictions. “As I said the other day, we’re seeing an increase in substance abuse, we’re seeing additional food insecurity. We’ve had over 200,000 Iowans who are receiving unemployment claims.”

“Iowans are meant to work,” she added.

Reynolds and Trump spoke briefly to reporters during a photo op following their meeting. The governor’s comments were focused on the success she has had keeping meat processing plants open in the state, even though they have become centers of virus transmission.

“We’re going to hopefully prevent what could have been a really sorry situation where we were euthanizing some of our protein supply, and really impacting the food supply, not only across the country, but throughout the world,” Reynolds said.

According to the governor, processing plants are starting to move quickly again, after some shut down temporarily or slowed production due to workers being infected with COVID-19, and the nation’s meat supply should be back to normal levels within a week to 10 days.

“I mean, Perry came back up at 60 percent capacity,” Reynolds said. “That’s a strong start up.”

The Tyson Foods plant in Perry is one of four Iowa meat processing plants that meet the Iowa Department of Public Health’s strict definition for a COVID-19 outbreak.

For IDPH to declare an outbreak of COVID-19 at a business, it must have an absenteeism rate equal to 10 percent of its workforce “in a single location of an employment setting which constitutes a high-risk environment for the potential of COVID transmission, such as a congregate setting in which social distancing is impossible or impracticable,” or 10 percent of those workers must test positive for the virus or be considered in close contact with someone who has tested positive.

At the governor’s press conference on Tuesday, IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter said 730 workers, or 58 percent of the plant’s workers who were tested, were confirmed as having COVID-19.

Perry had the worst outbreak among the meat processing plants Reisetter named on Tuesday. (Cases of COVID-19 have been reported at five plants in addition to the four Reisetter cited, by not enough workers have tested positive yet for those plants to meet the definition of outbreak.)

Gov. Reynolds did not mention the high number of COVID-19 cases in Perry during the White House photo op, but said she believed meat processing plants were doing an excellent job of protecting workers.

On Wednesday, IDPH reported another 293 Iowans have tested positive for COVID-19, including 12 residents of Johnson County and three residents of Linn County. According to IDPH, 10,404 Iowans have now tested positive for the virus.

Another inmate and two more guards at Oakdale Prison in Coralville, according the Iowa Department of Corrections site. A second staff member at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Polk County is also reported as having COVID-19.

A total of 21 inmates and 11 staff members in Iowa’s state prison system have now tested positive for the virus.

IDPH also reported on Wednesday that another 12 Iowans have died from COVID-19. The deceased include two residents of Linn County.

Newly reported deaths by county

• Black Hawk County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Clayton County, 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Jasper County, 2 elderly adults (81+)

• Linn County, 1 older adult (61-80 years), 1 elderly adult (81+)

• Marshall County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)

• Muscatine County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)

• Polk County, 3 elderly adults (81+)

• Woodbury County, 1 older adult (61-80 years)

Iowa’s total number of COVID-19 fatalities now stands at 219, according to IDPH.

Even though Gov. Reynolds was busy at the White House on Wednesday, her office announced she had time to sign a new public health proclamation further relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in the state.

Effective Friday, May 8, tanning salons, medical spas, campgrounds and drive-in movie theaters may reopen statewide, provided they follow guidelines provide by IDPH. Dental procedures may also restart across the state, and golf course clubhouses can reopen and begin serving food.

Reynolds is also loosening restrictions in the 22 counties where they have remained in full force, including Johnson and Linn. Malls, fitness centers and other retail businesses in the 22 counties will be able to reopen at 50 percent of their maximum occupancy capacity. Those businesses are also expected to follow IDPH guidelines.