Iowa to partially reopen most counties, despite virus surge

April 27, 2020 GMT
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Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests to the public at the Iowa Events Center parking lot in Des Moines on Saturday, April 25, 2020. The tests were done by appointment only. (Bryon Houlgrave /The Des Moines Register via AP )
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Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests to the public at the Iowa Events Center parking lot in Des Moines on Saturday, April 25, 2020. The tests were done by appointment only. (Bryon Houlgrave /The Des Moines Register via AP )

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa will allow restaurants and stores in most counties to reopen and church services to resume, even as the state sees a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths, the governor said Monday.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an order allowing malls, restaurants, fitness centers, libraries and retail stores to reopen in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties beginning Friday. The order requires they operate only at 50 percent capacity and implement social distancing rules, such as limiting tables at restaurants to six and banning buffets and child play areas.

Reynolds ordered that existing business closures and restrictions continue through May 15 in the other 22 counties, which include the two largest population centers of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.


In all, the counties that will partially reopen have about 43 percent of the state’s 3.2 million residents. The largest cities in them include Ames and Council Bluffs.

Reynolds said 14 of the counties have no confirmed cases and the other 63 have seen a decline in virus activity over the last 14 days.

Bars in those 77 counties that prepare and serve food on site — beyond snacks or commercially prepared items like frozen pizzas — are considered restaurants and can reopen, the governor’s office said.

Reynolds also lifted restrictions on religious and spiritual gatherings statewide, allowing them to resume without regard to their size, citing the “significant constitutional liberties involved.” She said other community events would still be limited to 10 people or less.

The orders came as Iowa has seen an explosion of coronavirus cases that one study found was the fastest increase in the nation over a recent 7-day period. Waterloo, Sioux City and Des Moines have seen particularly fast-growing case counts, many tied to meatpacking plants and nursing homes. The state’s Latino and black populations have been particularly hard hit.

In Waterloo, Black Hawk County public health director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye grew emotional Monday as she announced that confirmed infections have surged to 1,346 — or 1% of its population. She pleaded with residents not to give up the fight despite the governor’s push to reopen elsewhere.

Sheriff Tony Thompson said the exponential increase over the last two weeks has happened for “absolutely no reason,” blaming operations at a Tyson Foods pork plant that closed last week and citizens who failed to take precautions.

Iowa’s statewide cases grew by 349 to more than 5,800 on Monday, its death toll increased by nine to 127 and the number of patients hospitalized hit 300 for the first time.

Public health officials have said they don’t expect the pandemic in Iowa to peak for another two weeks and that an Iowa-specific forecast remains in development.

A University of Iowa researcher said that his team has submitted two reports to the state that project the pandemic based on other models and publicly available data. The school and the state were reviewing requests to make them public.

Iowa has increased its capacity to test citizens for the coronavirus, but is only beginning a program to operate drive-thru sites statewide.

Democrats denounced the Republican governor’s orders, which they said would exacerbate the spread of the virus from county to county.

“Iowa is experiencing staggering daily infections, record-high deaths, and it has yet to hit its peak,” said Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines. “This is not the time to try to make people happy by randomly reopening segments of the economy like crowded farmers markets.”

The governor said that she had taken “significant mitigation measures to protect Iowans” but that they weren’t sustainable and have unintended consequences. She said it was time to shift toward managing the virus in a way that balances health and economic concerns.

“We can protect lives and secure livelihoods at the same time,” she said.

Reynolds said that she was urging vulnerable populations, such as people over age 60 and with underlying health conditions, to take precautions. She said everyone should “practice personal responsibility” when deciding whether to travel to reopened counties to eat or shop.

Theaters, casinos, barbershops, salons, museums, playgrounds and swimming pools remain closed statewide.