Iowa City Downtown District, Johnson County Public Health Department host restaurant and bar forum in preparation of upcoming football season

With Hawkeye football returning to Iowa City and Halloween weekend approaching, the two groups reminded bars and restaurants of the appropriate guidelines patrons must be following.


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

The pandemic is still here, but Iowa City is bracing for a busy autumn with Big Ten football returning for a fall season.

The Johnson County Department of Public Health and Iowa City Downtown District hosted their monthly Restaurant and Bar forum on Tuesday to discuss how to maintain health and safety measures during Halloween and the approaching Hawkeye football season.

Iowa City Nighttime Mayor Joe Reilly said the groups discussed the return of patrons to watch and cheer on Hawkeye football this upcoming weekend and how to encourage patrons to act responsibly when in different bars or restaurants.

“There’s some nervousness, Reilly said. “But I think there’s also excitement just to have those people back in so, hopefully, everybody can get on the train and do their part.”

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague signed onto a letter with 11 other Big Ten university city mayors asking for assistance as Big Ten football games historically have brought more social gatherings and alcohol consumption, activities that are associated with more spread of COVID-19.

The letter asked for the Big Ten to also consider city and county positivity rates in addition to team positivity rates when considering whether a game is safe to be held.

“We do not expect this metric to be in line with the current standard for the team; however, similar standards being applied to the communities this will affect is necessary to keep people safe,” the letter read.

Iowa football has a big economic impact on Johnson County — bringing in $110 million to local restaurants and hotels in 2014.

The Big Ten conference initially postponed its football season, but reversed its Aug. 11 announcement after other leagues, such as the Big 12, continued their seasons. The athletic conference came under pressure from President Trump and others to reinstate the season and Big Ten Presidents voted to reinstate the season after developing a daily antigen testing system for players and team and staff metrics for COVID-19 levels.

Environmental health specialist Mike Casella said the forum served to reiterate the safety requirements in Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamation. It also allowed the public-health department to provide further guidance to restaurants and bars in need of assistance.

“We wanted to just get those gears turning,” Casella said. “Most likely, there’s going to be a lot more students out and about with the football season starting back up… We kind of want to just reiterate everything that’s going on with the proclamation and also, anything that we can help with on our end from the public health side.”

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Corridor Management Group CEO Jason Zeman said the forum allowed different bars, restaurants, and city and county leaders to collaborate on creating solutions on how to best handle the possible influx of patrons.

“Everybody was talking about different things that worked at different places, basically sharing ideas,” Zeman said. “So, we can all work better and make sure we stay open.”

Zeman — whose group manages Studio 13, Yacht Club, Players, and Eden — said the bars will have additional staffing this weekend because of the expected increase of patrons wanting to watch the upcoming football debut.

However, he said he does not expect it to be an uncontrollable environment.

“I don’t believe it’s going to be as crazy as some people think, just because people know that the rules aren’t going to change and the limitations will still be there,” Zeman said. “So, it doesn’t matter if an extra 500 people try to go out; we still can’t let them in.”

Casella said the health department is focusing on educating bars, restaurants, and patrons as to what is appropriate, responsible behavior at establishments downtown, and how they can work together to remain open and safely serve customers.

“Education, education, education is the big thing,” he said. “Being on the public-health side, we want to be able to do what we can to assist the establishment in any way – if we can help them understand things more clearly.”

Casella said the safest option for patrons would be to watch football games at home with close family and friends. For those planning on going out, he said it’s vital to be as safe as possible.

“During a pandemic, we have to make sure everything is done safely,” the specialist said. “Stay home to watch the game if you can. If you are going out to restaurants, obviously follow all the mandate requirements.”

Reilly said although many bars and restaurants located in downtown Iowa City are following correct procedures inside, they have had lines form outside their establishments during busier nights – something the nighttime mayor said these establishments cannot control, since the sidewalk is the public right of way.

“It’s not really their space to enforce,” Reilly said. “But again, there’s that fine line the public thinks it’s their responsibility to manage.”

He noted additional precautions that downtown bars and restaurants take have allowed patrons with different comfort levels to visit their establishment and allowing these businesses to remain open through economic difficulty.

Said Reilly: “I think it’s good that we’re showing our resiliency that we’re managing what this pandemic by letting the people who are feeling comfortable to come out, do business, and be a patron.”