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Gov. Reynolds Moves To Partially Reopen Economy Before Iowa Reaches Peak Of COVID-19

kim reynolds
Olivia Sun
The Des Moines Register via AP, pool
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds holds a news conference regarding COVID-19 at the State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, Monday, April 6, 2020.

In a move to begin reopening the state’s economy after closing businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Kim Reynolds will allow restaurants, retail stores and other businesses to partially reopen in 77 mostly rural counties on May 1.

Business closures will stay in effect in the other 22 counties through at least May 15. Reynolds’ order also allows churches across the state to resume in-person services with social distancing.

There continue to be large daily increases in the statewide number of COVID-19 cases, but Reynolds said the counties being allowed to reopen either have no confirmed cases of the virus or the number has been declining over the past 14 days. She said the strategy marks a transition from mitigating the spread of the virus to managing its presence.

“The reality is we cannot stop the virus, that it will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available,” Reynolds said at her Monday press conference. “Instead we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives.”

The businesses that reopen must continue to follow some limits. They must keep the number of customers below 50 percent of their legal occupancy. Play areas at shopping malls must remain closed and food courts can only offer carry out. Fitness centers have to keep people six feet apart.

State health officials have said the peak of coronavirus cases may still be 2-3 weeks off, but Reynolds said extending business closures for the entire state indefinitely was not sustainable.

Credit Office of Governor Kim Reynolds
Office of Governor Kim Reynolds
The 77 counties that may partially reopen May 1 make up most of western, northern and southern Iowa.

“It allows our other communities to open up and everybody eventually wants to do that. We want to just make sure that we’re doing it in a responsible and safe manner,” Reynolds said.

Infectious disease experts said it’s too soon to reopen businesses safely because state health officials cannot be sure how far the virus has spread in rural areas. Too little testing and contact tracing are available outside of hot spots at meat packing plants and long-term care centers, said Dr. Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease researcher and physician in Fort Dodge.

“The hope is that we would be able to start doing more targeted measures in order to mitigate in a more targeted fashion,” Srinivas said. “However, until we have the resources to do that, which includes contact tracing as well as adequate test kits, it’s hard to say that we’re managing the virus at all. We’re not.”

Srinivas said officials should assume the virus may be spreading in all areas, even where fewer cases are reported, until testing shows that it’s not.

Some counties that are reopening are next to the state’s current hot spots. Opening too early raises the risk for higher rates of community spread as people travel to open counties and gather for religious services, said Dr. Eli Perencevich, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa.

“We’re really setting ourselves up for a rapid rise,” Perencevich said. “My biggest concern is we’ll have spent the last six weeks doing all this incredible effort staying at home for nothing because it could bounce right back and our hospitals could be overwhelmed.”

Reynolds said older Iowans and people with preexisting conditions should continue to stay home. Anyone who has come into contact with another person who has tested positive for the virus should isolate for 14 days. But Reynolds said she is not barring travel from county to county.

“You have to practice personal responsibility,” Reynolds said.

Health officials will monitor cases in the reopened counties, Reynolds said. If numbers begin to rise, restrictions could go back into effect.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa