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As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Surge, Gov. Reynolds Issues New Restrictions; Some Fear They're Not Enough

Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a new public health emergency declaration effective Wednesday mandating masks in certain settings.

As new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to spike across the state, reaching record levels, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced she has signed a new public health emergency declaration mandating masks in certain settings.

Under the new proclamation, people over the age of 2 at social, community, recreational, or leisure gatherings will be required to wear a mask if there are more than 100 people for an outdoor event or 25 people for an indoor event.

Six feet of social distancing must be maintained between each group, which are limited to eight people, unless they are part of the same household. This rule that also applies to groups at bars and restaurants.

Indoor youth and high school sporting events will also require masks and 6 feet of social distancing for spectators if the event has more than 25 people. Only two spectators are allowed per athlete, who are not required to adhere to social distancing or mask requirements.

Masks will also be required in salons, barbershops, massage parlors, tattoo shops and tanning facilities, unless face services are being performed.

The new measures go into effect Wednesday, lasting through Nov. 30.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Reynolds said the new measures will encourage Iowans to think more carefully about their actions while cases continue to spike across the state.

"They're just becoming very relaxed, because we've been dealing with it for so long. And so they're not taking the precautions...like they were before," she said. "And so you start to let down your guard when you're bringing friends and family together."

She said enforcement will include "educating, informing, and as a last result, issuing a misdemeanor."

Reynolds said the state has "reached a point of serious community spread" because Iowans aren't following preventative measures like wearing masks or social distancing.

"At this time, we're vulnerable to the virus even in casual gatherings with friends, neighbors, and extended family members," she said.

But Reynolds declined once again to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying the current measures were put in place to target where the state is seeing "potential spread," and asked Iowans to take personal responsibility for their actions to limit the spread.

The move came as Iowa has seen record levels of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. The number of Iowans hospitalized sailed past 1,000 this weekend, continuing to hit record highs on a daily basis. As of Monday evening, 1,135 were hospitalized, adding another 101 Iowans to the previous day's figures.

According to the state's coronavirus website, 90 counties have 14-day positivity rates above 15 percent, the state's threshold for allowing school districts to request a waiver from the state to go virtual for two weeks, prompting some districts to do so.

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The number of new coronavirus have rapidly increased in the past month, leading to a record spike in hospitalizations.

Hospital leaders across the state have urged Iowans to start taking COVID-19 related public health measures more seriously.

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Epidemiologist Jorge Salinas said the state's hospitals are facing critical staffing shortages and an increasing numbers of health care workers are out because they are sick with COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with the virus.

"The health care situation in Iowa is approaching in the next few days that threshold where you start seeing a mismatch. And at that time, hospital start having difficulties transferring patients from one hospital to the other, and it just gets harder" he said.

UIHC announced last week that it is implementing the first phase of its surge plan this week, which involves shifting staff and potentially delaying elective procedures in anticipation of an increasing number of hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

Salinas said current infection rates, which have topped 4,000 in recent days, indicate hospitalization rates will continue to increase.

"Now we are reporting more than 4,000 cases a day every day, that will translate into a tremendous increase in hospitalizations in the next two weeks," he said, comparing the pandemic in Iowa to a train that has picked up a lot of momentum and is now running at a fast speed.

"It's a bit hard to predict, but it may get to 1,500 or even 2,000 hospitalized Iowans, and I am doubtful that that Iowa has enough capacity for that number of patients," he said.

Salinas said the new restrictions implemented by Reynolds are "probably what was needed when we had very little transmission in the community," and said more robust interventions are now required, such as closing down bars and gyms and postponing big "superspreader" events like weddings.

Salinas said scientists now know the virus can be spread by small respiratory droplets produced when people do things like breathe or speak, making places like gyms and bars particularly dangerous.

"When these aerosols are generated, they can be suspended in the air for long periods of time and can travel longer distances. So this paradigm of 6 feet of distance — well, it's the minimum recommendation — is probably not sufficient," he said.

But Reynolds has repeatedly declined to close businesses, saying another shutdown could be detrimental to them financially. At the press conference Tuesday, she said she's urging Iowans to take more responsibility to avoid future shutdowns.

“Even if they look and feel a little different yet, you can still eat in a restaurant, you can still go to a movie and work out at a gym," she said. "And in many states, you can't do that. Iowa is open for business, and we intend to keep it that way.”

Democratic lawmakers have criticized Reynolds' newest mitigation efforts, saying they don't go nearly far enough.

Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said the latest steps were "like buying a smoke detector after your house is blazing out of control."

“Iowa has one of the highest positivity rates in the nation, making more schools unsafe to hold in-person classes. Hospitals are above capacity for COVID and non-COVID patients. Iowans are finding it difficult to impossible to get tested for COVID. And the death count is spiking," Petersen said in a statement.

House Democratic Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, called her response "too little and too late," saying the governor ignored pandemic and public health guidelines to campaign, putting Iowa in "a crisis." He called on Reynolds to enact the recommendations of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which has frequently recommended a statewide mask mandate and increased testing.

Last week in her first formal press conference in a month, Reynolds announced the state is launching a PSA campaign in local newspapers and TV and radio stations to encourage Iowans to follow public health guidelines. Her spokesperson, Pat Garrett, said the campaign is set to launch sometime this week.

On Tuesday, Reynolds said the new measure would slow the virus, but placed responsibility for slowing the spread on individual Iowans and the choices they'll make in the next weeks.

“It will take all of us doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus and keep it at a manageable level that we can live with," she said. "If we don't, we lose the very things that we've worked so hard to maintain. So I'm asking you to think about how you can make a difference. And it may mean making some really hard decisions."