Widespread COVID-19 vaccine use heralds a return of pre-pandemic nightlife in Iowa City

Iowa City business owners are reopening their restaurants, bars, and nightclubs to the public after widespread COVID-19 vaccination.


Tate Hildyard

Iowa City locals and University of Iowa students pile into Elray’s in downtown Iowa City on Friday, October 9th, 2020. As of this weekend, the government mandated closing of bars has been lifted prompting an upswing of business as locals and students return.

Meg Doster, News Reporter

Iowa City’s nightlife is recovering from the pandemic, one packed nightclub at a time.

“People want to be out and feel the connection that being at Studio 13, and other venues, brings,” Jason Zeman said in an email to The Daily Iowan.

Zeman is the CEO of Corridor Entertainment Group, a company that owns Iowa City nightclubs, including Eden Lounge, Players Sports Bar & Grill, and Studio 13.

“We were open as allowed by law with many restrictions plus health and safety protocols in place. Business was down on average 60 percent to 90 percent during that time when we were allowed to be open,” Zeman said in an email to the DI.

On March 18, 2020, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague signed a proclamation declaring the immediate closing of social gatherings of more than 10 people, putting bars and nightclubs at risk of shutting down.

Calvin Leslie, a University of Iowa student who lived in the Iowa City Downton District before the pandemic, said they saw how the pandemic has affected the night scene from his own apartment.

“It was happening, like every Thursday through Saturday, it was just jam-packed,” Leslie said about pre-pandemic Iowa City.

Leslie said the nightlife crowd never really went away, and the crowds that passed his apartment building never got smaller.

“A new bar opened, and it stayed successful,” Leslie said about the opening of Elray’s Live & Dive which opened summer of 2020.

Cory Kent, a managing partner of Pullman Bar & Diner, said the restaurant completely shut down all operations for a week following the pandemic’s state of emergency. He said Pullman Bar & Diner only did to-go orders for over a month after they could legally open.

Kent said when Pullman started allowing customers into the restaurant, they implemented reduced capacity inside and had plexiglass barriers between customers.

Corridor Entertainment Group’s businesses reduced capacity and added physical barriers to comply with social distancing, Zeman said in an email to the DI.

According to the Iowa City Press Citizen’s Vaccine Tracker, 58 percent of Johnson County’s population is fully vaccinated as of June 21.

Kent said his restaurant only started to recover in the spring when outdoor dining became an option again, and when the COVID-19 vaccine started to become widely available.

“Business-wise, we’re seeing a comeback,” Kent said.

He said the downtown economy is reliant on UI’s schedule and will only make a full comeback in the fall when football season starts up in the fall.

“I think we’ll really see what downtown’s going to be once we hit the fall and school’s back in session,” Kent said.

The Iowa Downtown Block Party is a staple of Iowa City summer but was canceled in 2020.

The Block Party Black will return on July 24, 2021, and will encompass 14 downtown blocks. Popular attractions like beach volleyball and silent disco will return to the Downtown Block Party as well as new activities.

Zeman said Iowa City downtown businesses will slowly recover from the pandemic during the summer party season.

“We have some exciting events the rest of the summer which should help bring us back to our pre-pandemic levels, including great entertainment during Jazz Fest, the Downtown Block Party and the Soul & Blues Festival,” Zeman said.