Some businesses in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties — including Story and Boone counties — are preparing to reopen with limited capacity following an announcement by Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday morning.
However, some local businesses remain hesitant to open their doors in fear of encouraging the spread of COVID-19.
According to Reynolds’ announcement, businesses including restaurants, fitness centers, libraries, malls and retail stores can partially reopen at 50% capacity starting Friday.
Statewide, the governor also lifted restrictions on spiritual and religious gatherings as long as the church, synagogue or other “host” implements social distancing guidelines and increased sanitary cleaning.
The businesses which can operate in those 77 counties are:Restaurants, fitness centers, libraries, race tracks and retail stores can open at 50% operating capacity. Restaurants cannot have tables with more than six people, and all tables must be at least six feet apart. Restaurants cannot have buffets or other self-serve items.Malls can also open at 50% operating capacity, but must keep play areas and other common seating areas, such as food courts, closed.Social, community, recreational and leisure sporting events can open with limits to 10 people.Other businesses will remain closed through May 15 — two weeks after Reynolds’ initial emergency proclamation closing businesses was set to expire.
In Reynolds’ announcement, she said she is moving from an “aggressive mitigation strategy” to a focus on targeted containment so Iowa can begin to kick-start its economy again. She acknowledged COVID-19 will likely be in the state until a vaccine is developed.
“Instead, we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives,” the Republican governor said.
Following the announcement, Ames business owner Mindy Bergstrom announced her three Main Street stores — Cooks Emporium, Nook & Nest and Z.W. Mercantile — will remain closed, with online sales and curbside delivery, despite being allowed to open.
“Just reviewing how many cases are in the surrounding counties doesn’t give me the confidence I need to open the store and put my employees at risk,” she said. “I also feel customers are going to proceed with caution as well, so maybe a small uplift in sales would happen, but I don’t think it will be worth the added stress and (risk to) safety.”
Instead, Bergstrom said, she plans to focus on online sales for all three stores.
“I think if I wasn’t online, it would be a more stressful decision on whether or not to open at 50%, but because I’ve been operating with the online shop right after the store floor closed, it makes my decision easier to stay closed,” said Bergstrom, who closed Nook & Nest on March 17 and Cooks Emporium on March 19.
Her third store, Z.W. Mercantile, was scheduled to open as a new Main Street business last week, but has since begun online sales until it can have its grand opening.
In Madrid, the restaurant Sisters in Cheese made a similar decision, according to owner Chelsea Johnsen.
Johnson announced shortly after Reynolds’ press conference, despite being allowed to open, she has chosen to keep her doors closed. Instead, she plans to continue working on limited hours by offering pre-order pickup dates every week-and-a-half.
“I keep telling myself we won’t know what the right decision is until we look back on it,” Johnsen said. “My immediate thought is we’re going to continue doing things as we have; we can minimize contact that way.”
Johnsen said while Sisters in Cheese has a small staff, most are considered to be part of the at-risk age, or have someone in their household who has a pre-existing condition.
“I go back and forth with it because I talk with a lot of people that have businesses much bigger than mine or much smaller than mine, and every restaurant is going to make a different decision and it depends on what’s right for them, as long as they’re making a responsible decision,” Johnsen said.
Other businesses, such as Dublin Bay Irish Pub & Grill in Ames, plan to reopen, but will take cautious steps, according to Don O’Brien, one of the partners at Dublin Bay.
“To be perfectly honest, obviously we would like to open, but we are very conscious of everybody’s feelings and we want to make sure that we are doing our due diligence and adhering to what the governor would like us to do,” he said. “We understand our responsibility in this big picture.”
Creating a six-feet gap between guests is doable at the restaurant, according to O’Brien, as the establishment is divided into several nooks and also has patio seating. Staff will continue to wear masks while at the restaurant.
Plans are to “take it slow,” O’Brien said, and the restaurant will have a limited menu for the time being.
“We’re going to make sure that safety is number one,” O’Brien said. “We want the customer to feel as safe as possible, and if (they) don’t, then I would encourage anybody to wait until they do (feel safe) … We will still be here and we want to make sure that we take care of them to the best of our ability.”
Churches also have a tough decision to make in regards to reopening, according to Jen Hibbens, associate pastor of Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, who said, “We are going to prioritize the more vulnerable in our congregation and the more vulnerable in the community; that’s going to be our biggest decision making factor, rather than whether it is permissible.”
Collegiate United Methodist Church had not met to discuss plans as of Monday, but a statement from the church’s bishop, Laurie Haller, on Monday evening encouraged chuches to “refrain from in-person worship until June 1.”
“Our first priority as disciples of Jesus Christ is to protect those who are most vulnerable,” the statement read. “Even though we all want to return to our churches and be a part of the body of Christ in person, I believe that it is more important to assure the safety of our communities from further infections.”
Hibbens said, no matter what, digital worship will continue for those who are sick, at-risk or uncomfortable with in-person attendance.
“I think most places now realize that even if we are allowed to gather, there are many people who will not be able to join us in person. It’ll be really important to continue to have a digital presence,” Hibbens said.
Attempts to reach local fitness centers and North Grand Mall for comment were not successful Monday afternoon.
The Iowa counties which are not included in the eased restrictions include: Allamakee, Benton, Black Hawk, Bremer, Dallas, Des Moines, Dubuque, Fayette, Henry, Iowa, Jasper, Johnson, Linn, Louisa, Marshall, Muscatine, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Tama, Washington and Woodbury.
For the 77 counties which are partially reopening, Reynolds said her team will monitor cases and will consider bringing back the restrictions. She still encouraged people to stay home when they’re sick and isolate for 14 days if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus.
“If we do see an uptick and we start to see some of the numbers really start to spike then we’re going to have to take a look at maybe dialing back some of those things too,” she said.
There were 349 new cases of coronavirus announced Monday, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health, bringing the statewide total to 5,868. Another nine people with COVID-19 have died, for a total of 127 deaths.
Whether businesses choose to reopen or remain closed, Bergstrom encourages people throughout the community to support local stores and resturaunts during the pandemic.
“We are all in this together, we have to support each other and come out of this on the other end even stronger,” she said.
Des Moines register reporters Stephen Gruber-Miller and Kim Norvell contributed to this article.