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Iowa to partially reopen most counties despite virus surge

By RYAN J. FOLEY

Associated Press

IOWA CITY — 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 other 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. Those that do not must stay closed.

Reynolds said that she was also lifting a prohibition 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 governor’s 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.

Iowa’s coronavirus cases grew Monday by 349, for a total of more than 5,800 since the first was confirmed March 8. Reynolds said that nine more residents have died, for a death toll of 127. 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. They said Monday that an Iowa-specific forecast was still being developed, and that they have been withholding from the public a University of Iowa report that uses available data to make such projections.

Iowa has increased its capacity to test citizens for the coronavirus, but is only beginning a program to operate drive-thru sites statewide that could take weeks to be fully running.

Democrats denounced the Republican governor’s orders, which they said would exacerbate the spread of the virus and weren’t based on public health considerations.

“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 on families. 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 still urging vulnerable populations, such as people over age 60 and with underlying health conditions, to stay home and avoid crowded settings. She said everyone should “practice personal responsibility” when deciding whether to travel to counties that are reopening to eat or shop.

Theaters, casinos, barbershops, salons, museums, playgrounds and swimming pools remain closed statewide through May 15.