Iowa City businesses reopened cautiously commencement weekend

Commencement weekend and the first days businesses could reopen collided. Area businesses prepared for an additional influx of customers by adjusting the business floor layout, sanitizing, and wearing PPE.


Tate Hilyard

University of Iowa juniors Harrison Akienn and Michael Sehelbrop enjoy pizza and beer at the Airliner on Saturday, May 16th, 2020. The Airliner as well as various other local businesses are experiencing a surge in business due to commencement weekend and the state government lifting certain quarantine regulations.

Sarah Watson, Managing Editor

Zoey Sletterhaugh’s parents drove five hours from Kansas City to be with their daughter in Iowa City for her virtual commencement ceremony this weekend. 

The trio, which was supposed to include her grandparents, in their 80s, and her brother, wholives in Colorado, spent the morning taking photos on the Pentacrest and in downtown Iowa City May 16 before grabbing carryout from Pop’s BBQ. On Sunday, they watched Zoey’s online commencement ceremony and video called her brother. 

The University of Iowa’s commencement weekend normally marks a huge influx of out-of-town customers for local restaurants and hotels. With in-person ceremonies moved online and Hawkeyes asked to move home, much of that business evaporated.

But this weekend marked a unique crossroads for this college town. May 15 also marked the first day restaurants, fitness centers, and salons could open at 50 percent capacity and with stringent public-health guidelines in place. 

Although significantly fewer graduates and families crowded Iowa City than on a normal end-of-the-semester weekend, some businesses that decided to open attracted customers who were drawn to the Iowa City area to take photos and celebrate the milestone. 

Graduates draped in black caps and gowns posed for pictures on the Pentacrest, and businesses saw outdoor seating areas fill and empty throughout the day as the weekend brought temperatures into the 70s until raining on Saturday night.

Before this weekend, Johnson County was one of the 22 counties where most nonessential businesses were ordered to remain closed, and restaurants were restricted to carryout and delivery.

Lori and Bob Sletterhaugh, Zoey’s parents, canceled hotel reservations in the nearby Amana Colonies, and stayed with their daughter in her apartment instead.

“When we knew her grandparents wouldn’t be joining us — because they’re in their 80s and knew that wouldn’t be safe — that’s when we canceled our reservation,” Lori Sletterhaugh said. 

The Graduate on Dubuque Street normally books up well in advance of commencement weekend, as it’s a university-themed hotel in downtown Iowa City. This year, it’s closed until at least July along with the company’s 28 other college-town locations across the country. 

Downtown, some Iowa City businesses kept their curbside and delivery options, but others quickly prepared for the boost of in-person customers, modifying the business’ layout to encourage social distancing and setting up hand sanitizer stations. 

The Airliner, a 75-year staple of the Iowa Avenue downtown strip, opened for in-person dining this weekend with tables spread apart and guidelines in place for frequent cleaning. A stack of paper, disposable menus sat atop the waitress stand on May 16, and a few small groups of patrons huddled in booths or basked in the lunch-hour sunshine in outdoor sidewalk seating.

Employees donned masks and routinely wiped tables, weaving between tables without chairs that are normally tucked underneath them.

Normally commencement weekend is a huge revenue draw as families visit Iowa City for their loved ones’ commencement ceremonies, The Airliner General Manager Patrick McBreen said. After opening, the restaurant served a couple hundred customers on May 15 throughout the day. Still, he added it’s just about 15 percent of the normal business that past years’ commencement weekend has seen.

Before reopening, The Airliner offered both lunch and dinner for carryout, but the option never gained a lot of traction, McBreen said. 

“We would have days where we would sell just one or two pizzas,” McBreen said. 

With added costs to turn on equipment and pay staff, he said costs would often outweigh the revenue brought it for the day. But McBreen said if closures were to be reinstated, The Airliner would be able to stay afloat. 

“We had to try and have a presence in the community,” McBreen added, “But the numbers we did for lunch and dinner — it was helpful — but now we’re able to open and do in person, business is much much higher.”

Although The Airliner largely kept to its social-distancing and cleaning guidelines, McBreen said, problems pop up now during these unprecedented circumstances that were never problems before.

In one such instance, on the night of May 16, pouring rain drove outdoor customers inside, briefly causing a cluster near the doorway as employees figured out how to accommodate those who were dining outside.

On the daily police log, there was a COVID-19 complaint logged at about7 p.m. May 16 that The Airliner was seating tables of 10, and that patrons weren’t social distancing. McBreen said, however, that The Airliner workers quickly remedied the accidental situation caused by the rain. 

“There was just kind of a congregation at the front of the building that (was) able to get cleared out pretty quickly,” he said. “… It’s unfortunate that it happened and we’re working hard to try and do the right thing. We’re definitely not encouraging any large groups to come in over six people.”

After the group dispersed, he said employees set up about 30 stools in the area to discourage a crowd from forming in that area in the future. 

For the last decade, Tom Essex, 72, has frequented The Airliner nearly every day — sometimes ordering a drink, other times a pizza and burger — before going home at 6 p.m. He sat inside the restaurant this weekend for the first time in the months since restaurants were ordered to close. 

Despite his age, and a heart condition, Essex said he didn’t fear dining in. 

“They can’t stay closed forever,” Essex said, referring to businesses in general.

Sitting at a multicolored outdoor picnic bench on the Pedestrian Mall, Tracy Harlan and Brandon Weber dug into sushi and a chicken sandwich, respectively, on May 16, one of the first times since March they ate a meal that wasn’t at home or a packed lunch. The couple, from Williamsburg, stopped to eat while ring shopping for a wedding band at Herteen & Stocker Jewelers on South Dubuque Street, which reopened for limited in-person business May 8. 

The couple is planning on a wedding in the fall, though coronavirus-mitigation efforts are forcing them to keep their plans flexible. 

Both have kept their travels mostly to and from work, and to get groceries. Harlan, 30, works for UI Health Care and Weber, 32, is a supervisor for an area power line company. 

The two have limited their travels to commuting to and from work and grocery shopping. They said they’d continue to choose curb-side contactless options when possible, but would continue to return to normal life “little by little.”

Before getting up to leave, Weber strung a gray cloth mask around his ears to fit over his mouth and nose.

“I think you’ve still got to maintain your social distancing,” Weber said, voice slightly muffled by the mask. “Obviously we took our masks off to eat. But we’ve got hand sanitizer. You still have to take those precautions.”

A few blocks east, a hairdresser at Thompson and Co. Salon Parlor prepared to cut and style a customer’s hair equipped with a clear plastic face shield and gloves, looking more like a surgeon than a hair stylist. 

A hand sanitizing station greets customers as they walk into the salon for appointments, made over the phone. Before beginning, salon stylists take a patron’s temperature. If it reads above 100 or they report having any common COVID-19 symptoms, the stylists tell them to reschedule. 

Kayla Thompson, co-owner of the salon with her husband, said the couple took out anything difficult to clean — a waiting-room couch and rug — and put up PlexiGlass between stations not six-feet apart already.

She added that the salon is split-shifting its staff — only about seven people, she figures, can be in the salon at one time — and extending the salon’s hours to accommodate fewer customers at one time.

The salon saw close to 100 people come through its doors on May 15, its first day open, she said, adding that her and her employees have been preparing for how they would go about reopening to customers for a few weeks.

“We reopened when we did because we felt like we were ready,” Kayla Thompson said. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily that, that you have to or that it should be frowned upon. It’s just when you feel like you’re ready, that’s when you should open.”

Iowa Gov. Reynolds eased restrictions for 77 counties beginning May 1, including restaurants opening to half capacity and shopping centers reopening at partial capacity. Restrictions in place for the other 22 counties remained in place until Friday.

University of Iowa public health experts in late April and early May warned Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds that reopening the state would cause an uptick in positive cases and deaths. In a mid-April report, UI epidemiologists concluded that Iowa hadn’t yet reached its peak, and that reopening the state would likely lead to a second wave of cases. 

Reynolds has repeatedly said that her rationale for reopening the state lies in Iowa’s high-volume testing capabilities — with the validation this week of the state’s Test Iowa equipment, she said the state should ramp up to 5,000 tests per day — and hospitals’ capacity to house critically ill COVID-19 patients.

On Saturday, the state reported 3,923 tests completed, 288 of which were positive. Over 350 Iowans have died.

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