‘This is Iowa’: State spends millions in federal pandemic aid to promote tourism; school kids now have state’s highest percentage of new COVID cases

Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Despite the fact that Iowa is experiencing the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases seen since January, Gov. Kim Reynolds feels now is the right time to encourage non-Iowans to visit the state and consider moving here. And the governor is spending $3.7 million of the pandemic relief funds the state received from the federal government on a 30-second ad to lure in out-of-staters.

“Whether it’s The Field of Dreams Game or the Iowa State Fair, we have only begun to tell Iowa’s story,” Reynolds said in a press release announcing the ad called “This is Iowa.”

As images from around the state appear on the screen, an offscreen narrator calls Iowa “the place where rolling hills meet low bills” and say it’s “where the fun is just getting started.”

“So, when are you coming to see us?” the narrator asks at the end.

The ad “will air on cable, online and through connected/streaming services,” according to the governor’s press release. It is part of an initiative also called This is Iowa, launched by the Reynolds administration in 2019, and run by the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“Our goal with this initiative is not only to increase tourism and increase visitors to the state, but maybe open their eyes to really crash the myth that we don’t have a lot of great things going on here,” Reynolds said at a June 2019 news conference announcing This is Iowa, and rolling out its first video ad.

That video — “This is Iowa: Real Estate Stunt in NYC” — was designed to make the obvious points that there are some nice apartments in cities like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and the cost of housing those cities is cheaper than it is in the New York City metropolitan area. There have been other This is Iowa videos since then, but the new video is the first one to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars.

President Biden signed ARPA into law in March, and rules created by the U.S. Treasury Department specify its funds may be used to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health and the local economy, provide premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work, replace lost revenue and restore government service levels and/or necessary water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

David Pitt of the Associated Press, who first reported the new ad was paid for with ARPA money, was told by an IEDA spokesperson that “agency officials believe the ad campaign expenditure is an allowable expense based on interim final rules from the Treasury Department.”

Last year, the Treasury Department forced Reynolds to return $21 million in federal pandemic relief to the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, after it determined the money was misappropriated. The governor had used that money, provided under the CARES Act, to make payments on a new cloud-based human resources and accounting computer system, well before the pandemic, after the State Legislature refused to divert $21 million in gambling revenue for the project.

On Oct. 16, 2020, Iowa Auditor Rob Sand sent a letter to the Reynolds administration explaining the $21 million had been misappropriated, because the computer system had nothing to do with the pandemic. The governor had awarded the contract of the system to a California-based company in October 2019, months before COVID-19 had first been identified by scientists. Reynolds rejected Sand’s assessment and said it was a legitimate use of CARES Act funds.

The Treasury Department, however, agreed with Sand, and informed Reynolds she was required to return the funds, or the state would face a fine equal to the amount of money misappropriated.

The governor appealed the Treasury Department decision, and after losing the appeal, waited until almost the last possible moment to return the $21 million. But Reynolds hasn’t always been so reluctant to give up federal pandemic assistance funds.

During a Fox News appearance on April 28, Reynolds boasted about returning $95 million in pandemic aid to the Biden administration. The governor had not informed the public or Iowa legislators of her actions prior to her Fox News appearance. The money was intended to help schools set up COVID-19 surveillance testing programs.

“I think [Biden] thinks the COVID [sic] just started,” Reynolds told the audience at the Fox News town hall. “I just returned $95 million because they sent an additional $95 million to the state of Iowa to get our kids back in the classroom by doing surveillance testing. And I said, ‘We’ve been in the classroom since August. Here’s your $95 million back.’”

The audience applauded.

Iowa did not have a surveillance testing program for schools at that time, and still doesn’t. Since returning the $95 million, Reynolds pushed Republican lawmakers to pass bills prohibiting school districts from having face mask mandates and stopping schools from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. (Schools are still free to demand proof of the vaccinations that were required prior to the pandemic, such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and varicella.)

The rate of new cases of COVID-19 in Iowa is now at its highest point since January, and according to the most recent weekly update of COVID-19 data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, children represent the greatest percentage of the newly confirmed cases.

IDPH Sept. 8, 2021, update, cases by age group.

IDPH uses eight categories in age demographics: birth to 17, 18 to 29, then each separate decade of life up until 79, after which it groups everyone 80 and older together. Iowans under the age of 18 accounted for 29 percent of the new cases reported on Wednesday. The next highest percentage was among those 18 to 29, who made up 18 percent of new cases.

The percentage of new cases occurring among Iowans under 18 has risen steadily in recent weeks. In IDPH’s previous update, theywere 22 percent of new cases. In the department’s Aug. 25 update they were 17 percent of the cases, and its Aug. 18 update, 13 percent.

Reynolds is currently facing two lawsuits, one in state court and one in federal court, from parents who claim the ban on school mask mandates creates an unsafe environment for their children. Iowa is also being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for possibly violating the rights of children with disabilities with its mask mandate ban.

Reynolds’ office dismissed the lawsuits as meritless, and the governor said the federal investigation was just an attempt by Biden “to distract from his own failures.”

In a speech on Thursday introducing his new plan to fight COVID-19, the president called out governors who are preventing schools from taking such basic virus mitigation steps as requiring masks and having eligible students and staff vaccinated.

“If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way,” Biden said.

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