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Gov. Kim Reynolds delivering a speech at the 2020 Deterrence and Assurance Academic Alliance Workshop and Conference on March 11 in the Student Innovation Center.

Under an order signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa businesses including restaurants, fitness centers, malls, libraries, race tracks and other retail establishments that closed to in-person patronage due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be able to re-open with some restrictions beginning May 1 in 77 counties. Religious services will also be able to resume in-person so long as hosts implement public health measures.

Story County is among the 77 counties where restrictions that closed many establishments will be relaxed.

The governor’s order comes as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise at a steady clip in the state. The total case number in the state has risen by several hundred cases each day for multiple days before Reynolds signed the new proclamation.

Effects on restaurants and fitness centers

Restaurants and fitness centers will be allowed to reopen to 50 percent of their normally allowed capacity to allow for social distancing and spacing between groups. Group sizes will be limited to a maximum of six people in restaurants, and buffets and other self-service will remain prohibited. Fitness centers must ensure equipment is placed six-feet apart to allow for social distancing, and group activities and classes will be limited to 10 people.

“We’re anxious to welcome people back through our doors where we can,” said Jessica Dunker, President and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association in a prepared statement. “However, we understand this has to be a gradual re-opening. Customer and employee safety are our top concerns and we know many operators will want to do far more than simply comply with the social distancing and other mitigation requirements from the state. They will want to take optional steps that go above-and-beyond.”

The Iowa Restaurant Association launched “The Iowa Hospitality Promise,” a program that commits participating establishments to take safety and sanitation steps that exceed any mandates, and asks members of the public who feel unwell or with underlying conditions to commit to staying home and using contactless delivery systems. Participating establishments will display the promise at their entrances so the public knows they are taking extra steps, according to a press release.

“This new normal places higher expectations on everyone,” Dunker said in the statement. “The hospitality industry is ready to keep its promise to Iowans and we’re confident our customers will do the same.”

Effects on unemployment

With the reopening of many businesses throughout the state, many Iowans collecting unemployment insurance benefits will be called to return to work.

Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s employment agency, announced in a press release April 28 employees who refuse to return to work when recalled by their employees will lose their benefits except for in certain circumstances.

Exceptions include:

  • Employees who tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus
  • Employees who recovered but medical complications prevent them from performing essential job duties
  • Employees with a household member who tested positive for the disease
  • Employees providing care for a household member who tested positive
  • Employees lacking childcare due to the disease
  • Employees lacking transportation due to the pandemic

Refusing to return to work when called in for other reasons, or in an attempt to continue drawing benefits will be considered a “voluntary quit” which would disqualify claimants from receiving benefits, including the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit of $600 per week, according to a press release from Iowa Workforce Development.

"The additional unemployment benefits that are provided under the CARES Act are meant to be temporary in nature and bridge the gap between the outbreak and a return to normal,” said the director of Iowa Workforce Development, Beth Townsend, in a press release. “For Iowans whose employment may be permanently affected by the outbreak, we have many training opportunities under Future Ready Iowa to help them obtain training and begin a new career in a high-demand, high-paying job."

Effects on religious services

The governor’s new order exempts churches, synagogues and other hosts of spiritual and religious gatherings from its continued ban through May 15 on gatherings of more than 10 people, but adds hosts of such gatherings “shall implement reasonable measures under the circumstances of each gathering to ensure social distancing of employees, volunteers, and other participants, increased hygiene practices, and other public health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 consistent with guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health.”

In a joint statement, an interdenominational group of Iowa Christian leaders said they learned of Reynolds’ order with “surprise” and said they felt “compelled” to provide clarity and guidance.

“In the spirit of ecumenism, we join together in asking congregations and members across the state to take faithful action by refraining from in-person religious gatherings, including worship,” the leaders said in part in the statement. “We encourage and hope that congregations will worship and gather in community from afar continuing the use of technology and other means. Decisions to return to in-person gatherings in our congregations should be based on science, the best practices recommended by public health officials, and in consultation with the leaders of our faith communities.” 

They called for all congregations, leaders and their members to “prioritize the safety and well being of each other” and those in their broader communities.

In a separate statement, the four Catholic bishops of Iowa announced public masses will remain suspended.

“In light of the expectation that positive cases of COVID-19 will peak in Iowa in the next few weeks, we have decided it would be most prudent for now to continue to follow the liturgical restrictions we have in place, including the suspension of public Masses,” the bishops said in a joint statement. “Without an effective vaccine or widespread testing and contact data that justifies a change in course, we simply are not at a place where we can resume our previous prayer practices."

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