As bars in four counties reopen, governor says Iowa must ‘stay the course’ on mitigation

Bars were allowed to reopen Sept. 16 in four counties where they had been closed since late August. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As bars in four Iowa counties prepared to reopen Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state was “making progress” and needed to “stay the course” on COVID-19 mitigation.

Reynolds issued an order Tuesday allowing bars in Black Hawk, Linn, Polk and Dallas counties to reopen as of 5 p.m. Wednesday and restaurants to resume sales of alcohol after 10 p.m. Bars in two other counties, Story and Johnson, are scheduled to remain closed until Sept. 20. Reynolds had closed the businesses Aug. 27 because of fast-rising COVID-19 cases linked to young adults who had visited bars and other alcohol-related businesses.

Of the four counties where the businesses are allowed to reopen, only one, Dallas, has seen a drop in its 14-day positivity rate.  The other three, Reynolds said, were “stable.”

Here are the 14-day positivity rates as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Iowa Department of Public Health:  Black Hawk, 7.7%;  Dallas, 6.5%; Linn, 8.1%; Polk, 7.4%. Story County was at 11% and Johnson was at 10.5%.

“We’re making progress and of course we need to stay the course of mitigation and containment as a state, as communities across our state and as individuals,” Reynolds said during her weekly news conference.

Asked by a reporter about the potential for another spike in COVID cases after bars reopen, Reynolds said: “I have to balance all of that … I can’t just look at one aspect of it.”

Reynolds said her order and revised mitigation guidelines aim to educate and “give them a chance to do it right.”

Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division has now enacted a “speedier due process” for enforcement of virus mitigation rules for bars and restaurants. The process can now be completed within a week, when before it was taking several weeks, Reynolds said. Stronger enforcement measures announced over the summer “didn’t do what we hoped it would do” and needed to be refined, she said.

“I think now that we’ve seen the trends come down, they know we’re serious about enforcement and following the guidelines on the emergency health declaration,” she said. Now that enforcement can happen in a timely manner, “we need to punish the bad actors and not the ones that are doing it right.”

The counties where Iowa’s largest state universities are located, Story and Johnson, remained under the bar closure order until Sept. 20.  Reynolds indicated the 14-day positivity rate in Johnson County as “beginning to stabilize.” But she expressed confidence that the University of Iowa would be able to meet Big Ten conference criteria for the resumption of fall sports.

“I think the universities, the university presidents, the students, the Greek systems, I think understand the importance of really abiding by what those guidelines are because they can see now the impact that it has. I think they want to get the Big Ten up and going and so I think if we can work together with the same goal we’ll meet that criteria,” she said.

Reynolds indicated she had not seen specific Big Ten criteria that the University of Iowa will have to meet. “I have to sit down and take a look at what that is, but I’m confident that we can get there and get that done,” she said.