IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa’s governor continued her push to reopen the state’s economy Wednesday, undeterred by her own status in “modified quarantine” and the state’s rising number of coronavirus deaths.
Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that she would allow restaurants, libraries and fitness centers in 22 counties, including the state’s largest metropolitan areas, to reopen Friday. Reynolds said salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors and massage therapists could reopen statewide the same day.
The moves came as coronavirus-related deaths in Iowa surged by 35 in two days to reach 306, and as Reynolds and the state medical director isolated themselves after potential exposure to the virus at the White House last week.
Adjusted for population, Iowa has the 14th highest number of reported coronavirus cases and 24th highest death toll among states, according to Johns Hopkins University. The coronavirus has spread rapidly through Iowa’s meatpacking plants and sickened residents at dozens of nursing homes.
The virus has disproportionately hit the state’s Latino, black and Asian populations and the elderly. Among deaths announced this week: a Congolese refugee who was an interpreter at the Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo and a 96-year-old retired optometrist.
Reynolds said she feels “awful” about the rising numbers of deaths but called them a lagging indicator of the pandemic’s severity.
She said she felt confident reopening more businesses because the state has enough hospital beds and ventilators to treat patients, increased its testing capacity and replenished its supplies of personal protective equipment.
The number of hospitalized patients — 388 as of Wednesday — is down from an earlier peak and the percentage of Iowa residents testing positive for the virus is declining, she noted.
“We are on the right path,” said Reynolds, a Republican who has been governor since 2017 and has a warm relationship with President Donald Trump.
Still, she acknowledged that the state’s largest metropolitan area of Des Moines has faced a rapid increase of confirmed infections this month and that the Sioux City region is managing the aftermath of an outbreak at a beef plant.
Critics cautioned the governor is moving too fast to reopen the economy, even if intensive care units have not been overwhelmed.
“We urge the governor to start putting human life before corporate greed and reverse course now before more people get sick and die,” said Tom Mohan, president of the liberal activist group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.
University of Iowa researchers warned in a paper last month that it was too early to lift restrictions and doing so would cause a second wave of infections. Their model projected a median outcome of 747 deaths by May 28. Reynolds nevertheless reopened restaurants and gyms in 77 counties days later, downplaying the projection as a “snapshot in time.”
One of the researchers, infectious disease expert Eli Perencevich, wrote on Twitter that it remains unsafe to eat indoors at restaurants or attend church services. “Even though the state is open, that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” he wrote.
The governor defended her approach as reasonable and cautious. Businesses have to follow new health rules, including limiting their customers to 50% capacity.
Bars, casinos, movie theaters and zoos are among the businesses that remain shuttered. Social gatherings and events larger than 10 people remain prohibited, and playgrounds and swimming pools are still closed.
Reynolds announced Monday that she would follow a modified quarantine plan after her White House visit last week. She also had extensive contact days later with Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Iowa after learning his spokeswoman was infected. Neither wore a mask.
Reynolds has been tested daily and was negative Wednesday, her spokesman said. The majority of her staff is working from home. That includes the state epidemiologist, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, who traveled with Reynolds to the White House and has been working remotely as a precaution.