Patrons flock downtown over weekend

Downtown bars saw large crowds over the weekend, the first since Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ closure order expired Oct. 4.


Katie Goodale

Brother’s Bar and Grill is seen on Thursday Oct. 8, 2020, the first weekend of bars reopening. Governor Kim Reynolds released a proclamation last Friday allowing bars to reopen in Johnson and Story counties on Monday, Oct. 5. Many bar-goers were out without masks on and there was little social distancing in lines.

Claire Benson, News Reporter

Patrons stood often shoulder-to-shoulder in lines snaking outside of popular bars in Iowa City the first weekend in a month after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ closure order expired on Oct. 4.

Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa and Story County, home of Iowa State University, were the last two counties the governor lifted restrictions on Oct. 4. Reynolds ordered bars, wineries, and distilleries to close after a spike in COVID-19 cases in six counties — including college towns — in late August.

Bars in Black Hawk, Dallas, Linn, and Polk Counties were allowed to reopen Sept. 16.

New COVID-19 cases have declined in Johnson County in the month since the order was put in place. Johnson County’s 14-day positive case rate was 4.9 percent Sunday, down from as high as 42 percent in August, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

UI officials have praised Reynolds for making the order to close bars and requiring restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. The order also mandated that patrons who ordered alcohol must also purchase food.

But rent is still due for bars and establishments, which are trying to avoid another shut-down order.

CEO of the Corridor Entertainment Group Jason Zeman said before Reynolds shut down the bars, wineries, and distilleries, there were certain downtown bars that were not enforcing social distancing or mask wearing measures, which made it more difficult for the vast majority of the bars to successfully enforce these policies.

“Before [bars were allowed to reopen], we’d have four to five places that weren’t doing it, and everyone else was,” Zeman said. “It was much more difficult to enforce the rules compared to when everybody does the same thing and we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing, the best we can.”

Bars are still required to keep patrons six feet apart inside. Zeman said because bars, restaurants, and other establishments have limited capacity inside their spaces, lines have been forming outside of the building on the sidewalk.

RELATED: Bars to reopen in Johnson, Story Counties

Over the weekend starting Oct. 9, long lines trailed from popular bars with employees at bars such as Sports Column attempting to herd patrons onto painted squares on the sidewalks, which are designated social distanced waiting spots.

Masks often hung around patron’s necks or were not seen at all until a bouncer at the door asked them to put a mask on. Patrons at Brothers Bar and Grill stood shoulder to shoulder outside the bar without many masks in sight.

Iowa City Nighttime Mayor Joe Reilly said in an email to The Daily Iowan that the painted squares outside the bars are merely a suggestion for patrons to follow and employees to enforce.

Reilly said since the sidewalks surrounding the bars are public property and not bar property, bars do not have the ability to control patrons gathering in that space.

“Line queues are the public right of way and not bar property,” Reilly said. “While they can offer a suggestion on where to stand, they cannot remove people from that space.”

At Bo James, which received an Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division citation in September for an Aug. 28 report of failing to social distance, containers of hand sanitizer and a mask station were set up outside the entrance.

Zeman said the recent pledge enacted by the Iowa City Downtown District has helped further emphasize the importance of bars, restaurants, and other businesses following correct social distancing guidelines, along with wearing a mask when not seated or not eating or drinking.

Zeman said he believes bars and restaurants will be allowed to remain open as long as they continue to encourage patrons to stay up to date on the policies in place, and effectively enforce those same policies.

“The biggest thing is just keeping the education going,” Zeman said. “Reminding people and keeping the enforcement of the policies going, and like I said, it’s not perfect, people are going to not always do what they’re supposed to do, but if you’re constantly reminding them and you make it part of your policy…it makes a huge difference.”

Nightclub Studio 13, one of the businesses managed by Zeman’s Corridor Entertainment Group, set up plexiglass barriers between tables for the studio’s first drag show Friday night.

Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the rise and decline of COVID-19 cases in Johnson County, but that bar closures and alarm at the rising number of cases contributed to the decline.

“Everyone saw the cases rising, and that caused a lot of community concern,” Jarvis said. “Getting national attention also really puts it at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Certainly, Iowa was a hotspot during that moment until a lot of attention was drawn upon it.”

Zeman said he was downtown from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Oct. 9, giving him plenty of time to observe what practices and measures the different bars in the area were following. He said he found that most bars were following the appropriate guidelines, keeping patrons six feet apart and encouraging them to wear masks, as well.

“I was much more impressed than what I’d seen last time before we got shut down,” Zeman said.

Zeman said he hopes if bars and restaurants continue to follow and enforce proper social distancing and mask wearing guidelines, they will be allowed to remain open and not cause another influx in positive COVID-19 cases in the Johnson County area.

“We just have to enforce the rules the best we can, and just keep it going, and hope that there’s not another spike in [positive COVID-19 cases],” Zeman said.

Sarah Watson contributed to this report.