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As Bars Reopen, Reynolds Says Social Distancing Requirements Will Be Strictly Enforced

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Johnston.
Charlie Neibergall
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference Aug. 4 in Johnston.

Following her announcement that bars will be permitted to reopen in four counties, Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state will be more strictly enforcing social distancing requirements for bars.

At a press conference Wednesday, Reynolds said her new public health proclamation, which was signed yesterday, clarifies social distancing requirements for bars. She also said the state's Alcoholic Beverages Division will be able to more swiftly punish bars that do not follow them.

"If they don't do what they're supposed to do, then we'll take the next steps, which is fine and to shut them down," she said. "So my goal is to - since we can do that in a more timely manner - we need to punish the bad actors, and not the ones that are doing it."

Reynolds announced yesterday that bars in Black Hawk, Linn, Polk and Dallas counties would be permitted to reopen Wednesday at 5 p.m. Restaurants are also again allowed to serve alcohol past 10 p.m.

Reynolds closed bars, taverns, wineries, breweries, distilleries, and night clubs in six of the state's counties on Aug. 27 amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, the vast majority in young adults.

Under her newest proclamation, bars will still remain closed in Johnson and Story counties through at least Sunday.

Reynolds said Dallas County is the only county of the six where bars were closed that has seen a decline in its 14-day test positivity rate. She said Black Hawk, Polk, Linn and Story counties' rates are "stable," and Johnson County's rate is "beginning to stabilize."

According to the state's coronavirus website, as of Wednesday afternoon, Story and Johnson counties both have 14-day positivity rates above 10 percent. Linn County has a rate of 8.1 percent, followed by Black Hawk County at 7.7 percent, Polk County at 7.4 percent and Dallas County at 6.5 percent.

Jorge Salinas, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, calls Reynolds' move to reopen bars a "step backwards."

"There is no doubt that there will be some harm associated with maintaining bars open," Salinas said. "Any crowded indoor space where people don't have a face covering is a time bomb, is something that can lead into a super spreader event that can fuel transmission in the community outside of those locations."

The most recent White House Coronavirus Task Force report from Sunday says Iowa is still in the "red zone" for cases. Last week, the state had 151 new cases per 100,000 people, the third highest rate in the country, compared to the national average of 74 cases per 100,000 people.

The report recommends a statewide mask mandate, which Reynolds has repeatedly declined to do.

Previous weeks' reports have recommended closing bars in 61 of the state's counties.

Reynolds calls Des Moines Public Schools new plan "disappointing."

At the press conference, Reynolds also called a recent decision by the Des Moines Public School District to switch to a hybrid learning plan once cases have further declined in Polk County "disappointing."

The school board voted yesterday to move the district to a plan that more closely complies with the state’s requirement that at least 50 percent of instruction be in person, but said it will do so when the district's metrics, not the state’s, show it’s safe. This includes less than one new case per 100,000 county residents over a rolling seven day period and a county 14-day test positivity rate below 5 percent.

The state's Return-To-Learn plan requires schools to have a 14-day positivity rate above 15 percent to request a two-week waiver to go fully online.

Reynolds said Des Moines Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is the only district that has not figured out a way to adapt to the state’s requirements safely and responsibility.

"Every other school district in Polk County has figured out a way to do that. So it can be done," she said. "And it's just I've laid out and I've laid out and I've laid out just the impact to some of these kids that are being left behind."

Reynolds has argued that opening the state's schools is vital because many kids rely on the social services provided through schools and not all parents can accommodate virtual instruction.

Des Moines Public Schools started the school year virtually after it was denied a waiver from the state to do so. The district has a pending lawsuit against the state over its Return-To-Learn requirements.

Last week, a Polk County judge denied the district a temporary injunction that would have allowed the district to hold classes online while the lawsuit moves through the courts.

If the district loses the lawsuit, it could be required to make up the instructional time provided through online instruction not authorized by the state. The district could also lose its accreditation, according to the director of the Iowa Department of Education.

Reynolds believes paying her staff with CARES Act funds is appropriate

Iowa Democratic lawmakers are calling for investigations to determine if Reynolds’ use of federal coronavirus relief money was appropriate.

This comes after Bleeding Heartland reported Reynolds, a Republican, used nearly $450,000 from the CARES Act to help pay 21 of her existing staff members.

Federal guidance says CARES act money is for expenses that are directly related to COVID-19 and that weren’t budgeted for prior to the pandemic.

Reynolds said she believes it’s allowed because her staff was working almost exclusively on the state’s response to the pandemic in the spring.

"And some of our staff are actually funded through other agencies, and I didn’t think it was fair for them to pick it up when this is an expense that’s qualified," Reynolds said.

But only a handful of the staff members who received this funding have been paid through salary sharing agreements with other state agencies.

"At a time when the number of jobless Iowans is through the roof and many Iowa businesses are hurting because of the pandemic, Iowa taxpayers should have confidence that federal COVID relief funds are being used only to help them," Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said in a statement.

The group of legislative Democrats is asking for the state auditor, the Senate Government Oversight Committee and the federal government to review this use of funding.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter