University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld ‘exceedingly disappointed’ in downtown businesses

As students have packed into bars downtown, UI President Harreld implores businesses to adhere to guidelines set in state proclamations.



A group of friends sit at a picnic table outside Molly’s Cupcakes in Iowa City on Friday, August 21. With classes starting the following Monday, some people looked to go downtown to socialize before the start of school.

Rachel Schilke and Eleanor Hildebrandt

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld sharply rebuked downtown Iowa City businesses not enforcing COVID-19 guidelines after maskless students packed bars over the weekend.

“We’re having an explosion of cases that are originating in the downtown, nighttime life, [especially] at the bars and clubs,” Harreld said at Tuesday’s Undergraduate Student Government meeting. “It is really, really troubling for me. I’m not actually blaming you [students] as much as I am the people that operate the bars.”

Harreld said even if the university went fully online, he believed the bars would still see several student customers.

“We can close down [the residence halls], the rest of the other 25,000 students who don’t live on campus will stay largely in the community,” Harreld said. “And that scares me more. That’s why I’m after the off-campus behaviors more than I am, frankly, in the residence halls.”

In an open letter to the Iowa City business community Harreld said over the past two weeks, he has been exceedingly disappointed in some of the downtown businesses that are disregarding the COVID-19 social distancing and safety proclamations from Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Cases in Johnson County are rising. The UI recorded 111 cases self-reported to the UI by students and employees. This comes four days before the university planned to start releasing the number of cases every Friday on Aug. 28.

“Your decisions will directly impact the university’s ability to honor the choices our students made to be in our community and on our campus,” Harreld wrote. “Our students want to be here. The university wants them here and the university knows how to keep them safe. Please help them stay here by doing your part.”

Under Reynolds’ proclamation, all bars and restaurants in the downtown area must ensure six feet of physical distance between each group or individual that is alone, ensure every patron has a seat a table or bar, and limit patrons from congregating closer than six feet.

“Your full cooperation and immediate compliance with these requirements will allow us, as a community, to recover from the recent spread of COVID-19,” he said.

Harreld said he was exceedingly disappointed by the number of students going to bars while local businesses do not enforce mask and social distancing guidelines now that classes have started.

Since bars and businesses have begun to relax on implementing COVID-19 guidelines, many students have been attending parties and going out to the bars downtown.

Iowa City Downtown District Director Nancy Bird said that she was not aware of the letter until asked to interview by The Daily Iowan. She said the entire business community was caught by surprise.

“I think the letter is not directed in the best way,” Bird said. “We need to not be playing a blame game, clearly all of us need to be doing better, and any effort we can do to look out for our neighbors and work with each other. Pointing fingers makes it worse.”

She said she worries that if the UI and the downtown continue to place blame on each other, the business community will suffer, and students must be held accountable as well as businesses.

“This is challenging for everyone,” she said. “The key is to encourage [students and adults] to wear masks. I can’t say it enough, but we all would be a lot safer if we could get the younger subset of people wearing masks at night, because they are doing it during the day.”

Iowa City Police Department Public Information Officer Derek Frank said the department has responded to complaints about social distancing by educating violators on how to adhere to the guidelines but has not pressed any criminal charges for students violating social distancing regulations nor the businesses for not enforcing them.

“This is really the first big weekend after everyone has started to go back — we’re going to play it by ear,” Frank said earlier this week. “We’ve seen what has happened in other locations, in Ames and other college towns. We’re going to be going out and making our own observations and seeing how the [Iowa City] businesses are handling it.”

Iowa City City Councilor Janice Weiner said she is in favor of more strictly enforcing the city’s mask mandate, as well as continuing to educate residents on the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing.

“I believe that we need to continue to educate,” she said. “People have come here from different places — there’s a real patchwork across this country of rules and regulations because there’s no national standard and the states are doing things differently.”

Weiner said it’s not just students who are not social distancing — adults in the community have been going to bars and attending house parties as well.

“There are a number of bars that are doing the right thing — many restaurants are doing the right thing,” Weiner said. “You need everyone to do it. To me, we can’t just say ‘oh, it’s the students,’ because we need the adults in the room to take charge and responsibility.”

Rylee Wilson contributed to this report.