Johnson County leaders recommend still avoiding nonessential travel as other counties set to phase in reopening


Lily Smith

The Johnson County Health and Human Services building at 855 South Dubuque Street.

Sarah Watson, Managing Editor

Even as the governor relaxes restrictions statewide on religious gatherings and farmers markets, some Johnson County organizations are hesitant to begin in-person gatherings next week, opting to continue with delays or no-contact operations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

North Liberty Baptist Church began doing “drive-in” church services beginning on Easter, where churchgoers pull into the church parking lot, and tune into an FM station while Pastor Tom Gibson leads the service standing atop a trailer. 

Gibson said despite the governor’s new allowance of in-person spiritual gatherings, he was planning on the church continuing its drive-up format with online options for the next two weeks in order to put churchgoers’ minds at ease and do their part to mitigate the public health crisis. 

“We’ll enjoy it a lot more if we can go into the building and be ourselves and shake each others’ hands,” Gibson said, adding that the church was planning to continue limiting in-person gatherings for at least another two weeks.

“I don’t care to do more funerals, honestly,” Gibson said somberly.  

Johnson County was excluded from the tally of 77 counties Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Monday could loosen COVID-19 restrictions as soon as May 1. That order would allow restaurants, indoor malls, and fitness centers to reopen at 50 percent capacity. The other 22 counties’ COVID-19 mitigation closures remain in effect until at least May 15.

The first county in Iowa to report positive COVID-19 cases back in March, Johnson County now has had 448 cases and six deaths, coming in behind just Black Hawk, Polk, Woodbury, and Linn Counties in total number of positive cases.

But statewide lifts on farmers markets closures and disbanding in-person religious gatherings do affect all 99 counties, including Johnson. The governor is still recommending those most at risk to complications due to COVID-19 stay in isolation and social distance as much as possible.

Johnson County officials, and hospital leaders urged the public to continue following current guidelines in place for the county — limiting nonessential travel, wearing a mask during essential trips, and continuing social distancing.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis asked religious organizations to consider audio, visual, or small services to best mitigate risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“If you choose to hold or attend services, you are taking on a higher level of risk and potentially putting others at greater risk,” Jarvis said.

When asked about whether residents could travel to neighboring counties with open restaurants or other businesses, Jarvis again recommended against traveling unless absolutely necessary.

“You need to avoid nonessential travel and, so it’s best not to pose that risk to other counties,” Jarvis said.

In a release from the Iowa City City Manager’s Office on Monday, the city advised against traveling to other counties, and only going outdoors for exercise, work, or essential items.

“Traveling to other counties where restaurants or businesses may be open is not advised due to potentially spreading the virus more,” the release stated.

Other religious organizations in the Iowa City area are planning on continuing its virtual operations through at least this next Sunday. 

Bill Lovin, a pastor at the The Congregational United Church of Christ Iowa City, said the church is planning to continue online services through the month of May.

“Public health is a major consideration right now and we want to do our part to prevent the spread,” Lovin said. “Resuming would require bringing a lot of people here and we’re not ready to do that yet.”

For farmers markets, the Iowa City farmers market is planning to begin no-contact delivery May 1, delaying their in-person market until at least July. 

Solon, too is delaying its summertime market until at least June and Swisher is delaying its market indefinitely.

Coralville is planning to begin a limited open-air farmers market May 15. Organizers are encouraging people to drive through and pick up their produce and order ahead. Coralville Parks and Recreation Center Supervisor said vendors — limited to produce or livestock — would be spaced out in the usual parking lot to avoid unnecessary contact.

Mercy Iowa City Communications Director Margaret Reese said that Mercy was preparing for any new COVID-19 patients, but urged people to continue to follow guidance.

“If people are not careful in following precautions, and continuing to avoid large groups and hopefully staying home as much as possible, the chance of an uptick is very great so hopefully people will be responsible. As I’ve said we’d like to see a decrease not an increase.”

Both Mercy Iowa City and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics will begin ramping up elective surgeries, which had previously been suspended by the governor’s order.

Hospitals need to be able to rely on their own supply of Personal Protective Equipment in order to begin conducting elective surgeries, according to the proclamation. Both hospital spokespeople remained confident in their immediate PPE supply.

Brennan said UIHC is beginning the coordination effort to begin those elective surgeries — bringing on staffers and conducting COVID-19 testing on patients. In the UIHC lab, Brennan said it’s able to conduct about 400 tests a day.

“Reopening certainly could effect the spread,” Brennan said. “We hope that people are takin great precautions, continuing to wash their hands, continuing to social distance, wearing cloth masks if needed.”