State officials have released guidelines for restaurants and other businesses and farmers markets that will be allowed to open Friday in 77 Iowa counties.

The move to reopen three-fourths of the state comes despite continued confirmation of hundreds of cases a day in the 22 counties still under widespread restrictions.

“In all cases, those businesses must ensure that social distancing continues to take place,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a news conference. She added that the businesses will need to use cleaning methods outlined by the Iowa Department of Public Health and based on recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Iowans have missed their favorite local restaurant and they are curious about how the experience will be different and whether it will be safe,” Reynolds said. 

The Iowa Restaurant Association worked with the health department and the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals to write the new guidelines, the governor added.

Reynolds made similar suggestions for churches, which will be allowed to open statewide beginning this weekend. Many churches are still deciding when to resume in-person services.

The latest daily testing results brought 508 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, 98% of them in the 22 counties that still have the most state-ordered restrictions. Nine more people died of the virus, bringing the total to 136 in Iowa. Seven were living in long-term care facilities, and all nine were elderly. 

Seven more long-term care facilities have had outbreaks — Granger Nursing and Rehab Center in Dallas County; Dubuque Specialty Care in Dubuque County; Park Center and Accura HealthCare of Newton West, both of Newton; the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown; and Fleur Heights Center for Wellness and Rehab and University Park Nursing and Rehab, both in Des Moines.

To date, 23 long-term care facilities have had COVID-19 outbreaks, the state reported.

Since the pandemic began, 6,376 cases have been confirmed in Iowa. As of Tuesday, 1 in 79 Iowans had been tested for the coronavirus, and 34% who were diagnosed with the virus have recovered.

The state is encouraging Iowans to take the online assessment at TestIowa.com to see if they should be tested. Reynolds said she would announce more testing sites Wednesday.

Sarah Reisetter, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said still-developing guidelines for restaurants, fitness centers and other reopening businesses will be at coronavirus.iowa.gov.

Highlights of the restaurant guidelines as they stand include:

  • Limit indoor and outdoor seating capacity to 50% of normal operating capacity 
  • Limit group size to six people
  • Added cleaning
  • Screen workers and customers for COVID exposures or symptoms
  • Seating by reservation only
  • Make sure there is at least 6 feet between tables
  • Don’t provide buffets, salad bars, or other self-service food or beverage operations
  • Provide social distancing for employees and customers and increased hygience practices
  • Eliminate bar seating
  • Require employees who serve customers to wear clean masks
  • Eliminate entertainment

Reisetter said farmers markets will be told to eliminate entertainment and seating areas, encourage social distancing and use of provided hand sanitizers, avoid passing out food samples, provide cashless payment systems and and sell only farm goods. Farmers market guidelines also are at coronavirus.iowa.gov.

Churches weigh decisions on reopening

Thousands of churches around Iowa, particularly in the 22 counties still under many restrictions, face difficult decisions. Some have turned to online services with success, but are weighing when they can reopen their sanctuaries safely.

In a letter to the churches thus week, United Methodist Church Iowa Conference Bishop Laurie Haller said she was changing her initial plan to follow Gov. Reynolds’ guidance on reopening. Reynolds has left reopening up to the churches statewide for First Amendment reasons, she said Tuesday.

“In light of the expectation that positive cases of COVID-19 will peak in Iowa in the next few weeks, I am strongly encouraging all United Methodist churches in Iowa to refrain from in-person worship until June 1, when I will reassess,” Haller wrote.

She added: “My reasoning is that our first priority as disciples of Jesus Christ is to protect those who are most vulnerable, which includes the elderly, the very young, and those with underlying health conditions. Even though we all want to return to our churches and be a part of the body of Christ in person, I believe that it is more important to assure the safety of our communities from further infections.”

The Des Moines Diocese of the Catholic Church plans to announce a decision on services Wednesday. “We are looking forward to safely gathering for worship using scientific and medical standards as a basis for our decision-making” after checking with the three other Iowa dioceses, according to a statement from the Des Moines Diocese.