Eight days out from Christmas, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered what she hoped was a gift to her beleaguered state’s small businesses: new, looser COVID-19 restrictions. But medical experts tell The Daily Beast it’s a present many Iowans will soon find themselves desperately wanting—and unable—to return after the holiday season.
Just in time for the final weekend before the holiday, Reynolds signed a proclamation on Thursday that lifted a previous 15-person cap on indoor gatherings and permitted bars and restaurants to return to normal operating hours, with group sizes no larger than eight and kept at a distance of six feet. The decree only obligates patrons to wear masks while not seated, and for public-facing employees to wear coverings generally. In other indoor settings, such protective gear is necessary only when people are fewer than two yards apart. Posts on Instagram from Friday and Saturday showed sorority girls in Iowa City and punk rockers in Des Moines gathering unmasked at local watering holes.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Reynolds boasted that her state “continues to experience a decline” in cases and hospitalizations, particularly relative to November, when Iowa suffered its deadliest month yet and its medical system appeared on the brink of collapse.
But data from Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point to a different and alarming trend. The national tracking system the former has operated since the early days of the pandemic shows that Iowa is among just 11 states that saw a spike in the number of infections over the past week—and the only one in the Midwest—and a positivity rate exceeded only by Pennsylvania, Idaho, and Alabama.
Meanwhile, federal figures show that in the seven-day period ending Dec. 21, Iowa lost 376 people to the disease, tying it with the Dakotas for the worst mortality rate relative to population in the entire country.
In this context, Reynolds’ move to scale back restrictions has in-state medical professionals scared.
“It’s not like our number of cases are down a lot. They’re down a bit, but not down substantially,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, chair in Virology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and a career expert on coronaviruses. “I think all the data show it’s probably going to be a problem. The number of cases is likely to go up after the holiday.”
Indoor drinking and dining are particularly risky activities, Perlman warned, especially in winter when owners are less likely to open their establishments to outdoor airflow. While he conceded it is possible for a restaurant or bar to maintain strict protocols around distancing, face-covering, ventilation, and interactions between members of separate households, he argued that consistency is difficult to guarantee. Longer hours, meanwhile, expand the window of exposure for staff and patrons alike.
“It would be great if we could all be responsible for ourselves, and my health as an individual is all that mattered. But it’s just not that simple,” he said. “You wind up with high caseloads in assisted living facilities and the vulnerable populations, and people wind up dying.”
Perlman’s colleague at the University of Iowa, epidemiologist Dr. Eli Perencevich, sounded even more dire.
“It’s going to be really hard the next few months. A lot of people are going to die,” said Perencevich, who serves as associate chair for Clinical and Health Services Research.
Like Perlman, Perencevich empathized with the plight of struggling small entrepreneurs. But he argued the state should leave nonessential businesses closed until the mortality rate has come down to zero, and subsidize them out of the state’s massive annual budget surpluses. Meanwhile, he urged the governor to make the state’s mask mandate “absolute.”
Reynolds’ current policies, he argued, will yield few short-term benefits—and a lot of long-term suffering for business owners and consumers alike.
"The things she’s loosened up aren’t going to really help the economy, and it’s going to lead to more cases, which is going to hurt the economy,” he said. "We should restrict things until we don’t have people dying.”
Reynolds’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a spokesperson directed The Daily Beast to laudatory comments Jason Harrington, CEO of the Lakes Regional Healthcare System, made about the governor at the Tuesday press conference. Harrington’s remarks dealt mainly with distribution of the vaccine and the state’s assistance in funding staff and facilitating outpatient care.
The spokesperson identified Harrington as a doctor. However, his degree is in osteopathic medicine, which deals primarily with the joints and spine, and he appears to have spent his career primarily in hospital administration.
And, while he said “numbers are trending down” overall at his rural northwest Iowa medical facility, he admitted that it had actually witnessed a spike among those in need of prolonged care.
“Unfortunately our inpatient numbers are trending up due to some spikes in nursing homes,” Harrington said.