Governor calls for school closings as legislative session is suspended

By: - March 15, 2020 4:21 pm

In response to a formal open-records complaint, the Iowa Department of Public Health is continuing to withhold data regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Gov. Reynolds recommended Sunday that all Iowa schools close for four weeks as part of the state’s response to the escalating community-based spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19.

“Based on new information today from the Iowa Department of Public Health, now is the time to move to the next level of response,” Reynolds said Sunday. “I am now recommending that all Iowa schools close for a period of four weeks to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Shortly before Reynolds made the announcement, the state public health department was notified of four additional positive cases of Iowans with the virus, for a total of 22 positive cases in the state.

According to IDPH, two of the four cases are related to international travel and both individuals are residents of Allamakee County. One is a middle-age adult between 41-60 years; the other is under the age of 18.

The third case is a middle-age Johnson County resident with no identified travel-related risk or exposure to a known COVID-19 case, and is considered the second case of community spread in Iowa. The fourth individual resides in Polk County and is a middle-age adult believed to represent a third case of community spread.

Reynolds signed a Proclamation of Disaster Emergency on Sunday, continuing the proclamation she signed on March 9, allowing retailers that sell beverages with an Iowa container deposit to stop accepting empty cans and bottles for the duration of the emergency.

Hours before the governor called on schools to close, the Iowa Legislature suspended the 2020 session for at least 30 days. The move, which was announced by House and Senate leaders,  came in the wake of Saturday’s announcement of community spread of the coronavirus in Iowa. That announcement signaled the highly contagious virus was spreading in the state from an unknown source not related to travel, as evidence by a new case out of Dallas County, which neighbors Polk County.

The decision to suspend the 2020 session was made in consultation with the Iowa Department of Public Health and Reynolds’ office. It was based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control related to mass gatherings, House and Senate leaders said.

The House and Senate plan to convene Monday at their regularly scheduled time, but only to consider resolutions regarding continuity of government. The move is intended to ensure the ongoing delivery of essential services to Iowans. Previously scheduled subcommittee and committee meetings have been canceled. Standing committees will be on-call and will convene if needed.

The Capitol building will open Monday at 11 a.m., with entrances accessible on the south and west sides. Prior to entering the Capitol, staff members and the public will be required to undergo a health screening administered by the state Department of Public Health. That screening will include a health questionnaire and temperature reading.

All scheduled events, tours, and receptions at the Capitol have been canceled until further notice.

Members of the public who are over the age of 60 or who have underlying health conditions — such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease — are encouraged to avoid the Capitol.

Des Moines mayor declares ‘state of emergency’

Also on Sunday, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie declared a state of emergency, banning gatherings of 250 or more people on public property or public right-of-ways.

As a result, the previously scheduled St. Patrick’s Day parade planned for Tuesday will not be held. Any permits or permissions of gatherings were rescinded by the mayor’s announcement. City officials said they will refund any permit fees upon request.

Department of Corrections bans visitors

The Iowa Department of Corrections, meanwhile, suspended visitation at all state prisons until further notice. The department said it was acting “out of an abundance of caution for the department’s vulnerable population.”

In a written statement, the agency said it “realizes the impact this can have on institution morale over time, and also knows the value of keeping inmates connected with their families. To help address this concern, the department has been exploring reduced-cost or free telephone calls and is working to establish video-visitation capability.

“Our staff are taking every precaution within our power to ensure that the prisons are ready to prevent and respond to the introduction of COVID-19,” said DOC Director Beth Skinner. “We are working closely with all relevant state agencies, such as the Iowa Department of Public Health and Homeland Security Emergency Management, to ensure that we’re taking every step we can to minimize the impact that this virus will have on our population.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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