Gov. Kim Reynolds encouraged Iowans to “lean further into normal” after a year of COVID-19 closures, restrictions and precautions.
“There’s no reason for us to continue to fear COVID-19 any longer,” Reynolds said. “We know how to manage it. Individuals can be trusted to make decisions that will keep us on a path forward.”
At a visit Wednesday to the Food Bank of Iowa, Reynolds said state employees who have been working remotely would be returning to their offices in upcoming weeks. She encouraged businesses to do the same.
“In the coming days, I’ll be meeting with businesses to understand how they can offer their employees and patrons more normal work, business, dining and entertainment experiences,” she said.
Iowa’s average daily COVID-19 cases are down 25% over the last two weeks, according to data from the New York Times, with an average of 295 new cases daily.
Among adults, Reynolds said nearly 50% were fully vaccinated and nearly 59% had received at least one shot. She said that should be enough for people to re-enter society, so long as vulnerable Iowans have been vaccinated, and she encouraged people to make decisions based on their individual situations and comfort level.
“If you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, by all means, go ahead and wear a mask,” Reynolds said, emphasizing that the state does not have any capacity limits or mask requirements under the current public health proclamation.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that vaccinated individuals still wear masks in indoor public settings and avoid large indoor gatherings.
Reynolds defends decision to end federal unemployment benefits
The governor on Tuesday announced Iowa would no longer accept additional unemployment assistance from the federal government. That means the extra $300 a week will end on June 12 for Iowans on unemployment.
“These programs provided Iowans with crucial assistance when the pandemic first began, but more than a year later, they have served their purpose,” Reynolds said. “Iowa is open for business, jobs are readily available and employers are eager to hire.”
Iowans are required to actively apply for jobs while receiving unemployment benefits. If they receive a suitable job offer, they must accept it. But with the additional COVID-19 unemployment funds, Reynolds said some people were skirting the system.
“They schedule an interview, and then nobody is showing up,” she said. “We’re just in a horrible cycle of not even having people fulfill that interview to have the opportunity to bring them on board.”
Iowa Workforce Development did not immediately respond to questions about whether such behavior is prohibited by the state or how frequently this occurs. The Biden administration has pushed back against states that have discontinued the benefit, arguing that worker shortages are due to child care issues, school reopenings and vaccination rates, rather than a desire not to work.
Biden on Monday also urged businesses to pay fair wages to bring employees back. Reynolds said Wednesday the tight job market may force businesses to increase their wages.
“When they can’t find workers, that drives wages,” she said.
Food insecurity remains elevated beyond pre-pandemic levels, task force members say
Reynolds on Wednesday released a report from the Feeding Iowa task force, a group convened at the onset of the pandemic to track and support food security. The report found there was a 168% increase in applications to the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP) in March 2020. During the first three months of the pandemic, the number of Iowans experiencing food insecurity increased from 305,000 to 459,850 individuals.
The task force estimates that over 38 million meals were provided through CARES Act initiatives, including several to promote beef, pork and turkey. Together, about $12 million of the state’s CARES Act funds went toward food insecurity.
“One unfortunate life situation or unexpected disaster could put most any of us in need of food assistance,” said Linda Gorkow, executive director of the Iowa Food Bank Association.
Gorkow said that “the impact of COVID-19 continues” and food insecurity remains an issue in Iowa. She said levels of food insecurity today are still about 50% higher than they were in May 2019, with about 407,000 Iowans experiencing food insecurity.
Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, who chaired the Feeding Iowans Task Force, said the group would be “scaling back” its efforts.
“I want to be clear, we’re not saying that we’ve solved hunger in Iowa forevermore,” Gregg said. “But instead, we want to use the relationships that we’ve built in the connections that we’ve made to continue this conversation in other forums.”