Retailers, restaurants, barbers and salons get green light to reopen; Polk and city officials urge caution

Polk County residents got some good news with a healthy dose of caution today as Iowa’s governor announced the planned reopening of restaurants and retail shops at 50% capacity. Meanwhile, Polk County officials are strongly cautioning residents to continue to take precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 cases, which are still increasing locally. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds today announced that she has lifted restrictions on restaurants and most retail establishments in the 22 still-restricted counties, including Polk, beginning Friday, May 15, at 5 a.m. The lifted restrictions enacted through her signed proclamation mean that all restaurants, fitness centers, libraries, salons, barbershops and massage therapy locations can be reopened statewide with the same social distancing and capacity restrictions she previously ordered in the other 77 counties. 

The lifting of restrictions also enables opening on a limited basis for malls, racetracks, tanning salons and other types of retail establishments, with the exceptions of bars, indoor movie theaters, casinos and other amusement areas. Pools also remain closed. 

In a separate announcement, the Polk County Board of Supervisors advised residents that COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Polk County. The supervisors “strongly recommended” that residents continue to take precautions to protect themselves and others, including staying home as much as possible and continuing to avoid crowded areas and practice social distancing. Supervisor Matt McCoy said “many businesses in Central Iowa are taking slow and methodical steps towards reopening in a manner that is safe for their employees and the public,” and urged social distancing, hand-washing, masks and other protective measures be taken. 

The county will continue to provide services online and by phone, and will not be reopening Polk County buildings to the public until July 1. “Polk County’s top priority will remain the safety of employees and the public and will continue to evaluate the appropriate time to open Polk County buildings to the public based on the most current data and recommendations from the Polk County Health Department,” the supervisors said in a statement. 

“When businesses are allowed to open, we should not simply resume pre-COVID-19 life,” said Supervisor Angela Connolly. “The elderly and people with preexisting conditions remain at increased risk of death from COVID and it is the responsibility of everyone in our community to protect our most vulnerable residents.”

Polk County cases continue to rise, and it is critical to continue practicing these precautions, Connolly said. 

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie also weighed in with a statement: 

“We know these two things about COVID-19 in Iowa – the most cases are in Polk County, and we are still uncertain when those numbers might peak. That is why I’m urging residents to limit events and activities that put them in contact with others and increase exposure. All of us want to return to our normal lives as quickly as possible, but we must be patient,” he said. “This is not going to happen overnight because the coronavirus doesn’t follow a calendar. We need to trust the advice of medical experts and remain diligent and disciplined on staying safe and healthy.”

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa has had more than 3,200 new COVID-19 cases reported over the last seven days, for a total of 12,373 cases. Of the 357 people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 as of Monday, one-third of them — 119 patients — were in Polk County hospitals, according to public health data. 

Iowans who are over 65 and those with medical conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 are advised to continue to stay at home as much as possible to protect their health, said Dr. Sarah Reisetter, director of health promotion and chronic disease prevention for the state. It’s also acceptable to choose to remain self-isolating at home even for those not in a high-risk category, she said.

“Everyone needs to do what’s best for them, and that will differ depending on everyone’s unique circumstances,” Reisetter said. 

Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said, “We are incredibly excited for the opportunity to begin serving people again. … This is a step that will really increase our chances of survival.” 

Dunker said she believes the majority of restaurant owners in the 22 counties will be able to open over the next week, depending on how quickly they can restock their pantries and coolers and recall staff. She urged patrons to continue taking advantage of carryout and takeout in addition to dining in, given that they’ll be operating at 50% of seating capacity.  

“No one built a business model upon 50% capacity, so we hope that everyone will continue to use carryout and delivery so that we can” bring in as much business as possible, she said. 

Dunker said she wasn’t surprised that bars weren’t included in this reopening proclamation. 

“Part of the reason is we’ve been watching other countries and seeing what’s happening in the bar scene there,” she said. “For instance, South Korea reopened its bars and then closed them down again. But I’m hopeful that they will be in the next round. As we look across the country, I think we will continue to see graduated reopening.”

Additionally, she said, “I don’t think we’ll be going from 50% to 100% capacity [without an interim step]. But if the data allows it, maybe we could. I think the 6-foot separation will stay with us for a while. And I think staff will continue to use masks for some time. I think also that establishments that have moved forward with delivery, they won’t go backwards from that.” 

The Iowa Department of Public Health has developed guidance that all businesses should follow as they reopen their doors to the public, she said. Those requirements include: 
– Ensuring frequent cleaning and sanitizing of community facilities, ensuring that hand-washing and hand-sanitizing supplies are readily available for customers and staff. 
– Providing visual reminders for staff and customers to stay at least 6 feet away from others when in the establishment. 
– Allowing the use of masks or cloth face coverings, especially when staying 6 feet away from others is impossible, such as in a salon or massage setting. 
– Developing appropriate policies allowing staff to stay home when they are ill or have been in close contact with a confirmed case and asking customers not to enter the facility if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days, or if they themselves are not feeling well.
– Businesses should also continue to follow the guidance developed by the Iowa Department of Public Health, to prevent and detect outbreaks in their facilities.

“They can reach out to our department or their local public health department at any time for assistance, and additional guidance specific guidance for opening of restaurants and farmers markets is already available,” Reisetter said. “Additional guidance will be provided today as well for businesses that provide direct services to clients, such as massages and haircuts. 

Tom Durkin, a fitness center owner from Ames, spoke by videoconference about changes he’s made to protect his members as he has operated for the past two weeks in Story County, which has been open. Among the measures his staff has taken is marking off some exercise equipment to separate it for social distancing, and creating more social distancing space in the locker rooms and throughout the facilities. All of their employees will wear masks, and each employee’s temperature will be taken when they arrive for work in the morning. 

“We have found that people feel better by coming out of exercising and it helps trying to control their stress. And also we believe that exercise strengthens the immune system and helps combat this, so it’s been positive. Safety is first for our members and for our staff, and we keep that in the forefront of our minds every day. And, so far it’s been nothing but positive. And we’ve had a positive response, and it’s slow, that we’re making strides and everyday gets better.” 

Reynolds said she’s aware that Iowans are eager for life to return to normal. “COVID-19 is here to stay for a while, but with everyone working together just like Tom just highlighted, we can and must reopen our economy, and we can restart in a stable, safe and responsible way. And we can slow the spread and protect the health of Iowans and their livelihood, and protect the health care system in the long run. 

“Sadly, the vast majority of deaths in our states are among the very vulnerable population [over 65 and with preexisting health conditions], and 57% of those who have lost their lives to the virus were residents of long-term-care facilities,” she said. “So for that reason we urge older Iowans and those with chronic health conditions to stay home as much as possible and leave only for essential errands. 

“Iowans have shown that they are willing and able to follow the new standards in order to resume some of the everyday activities they’ve missed,” Reynolds said. “And that also means continuing to practice social distancing, careful hygiene, wearing a face mask in public if you choose, or if it’s required by a business or other establishments. I believe in Iowans, and I know that together we can continue to move this state forward in a safe and a responsible manner.”