As positive test results for COVID-19 continued to rise in Story County, Governor Kim Reynolds’ latest proclamation to further reopen businesses went into effect Friday morning. Some bars and restaurants near where the Informer is based in downtown Ames are still proceeding cautiously under the new proclamation, which lifted restrictions requiring establishments to limit groups to 10 people and overall capacity to 50 percent, prohibit self-service of food, and make patrons stay at least six feet away from live performers.
On June 3, the popular Main Street bar London Underground posted on Facebook that “we feel it is in the best interests of those we care about to remain closed a bit longer and evaluate the changing landscape of this pandemic.” As of Saturday, the bar remains closed. “Our service space is small and intimate and we want to be absolutely sure that we can maintain the health and safety of our customers, employees and the community,” the post added. It also advertised the latest of several carry-out and curbside sales for mixed drinks, which were made legal by an earlier proclamation from the governor.
Another Main Street establishment, the wine bar Della Viti, has proceeded similarly with carry-out food and drink orders. The bar has also been hosting virtual wine tastings via the videoconferencing software Zoom, whose popularity has skyrocketed since the pandemic began.
“Everybody’s in a different boat in the same, really messed-up ocean,” said Della Viti’s owner, Beth DeVries, speaking through a mask during a socially distanced conversation with the Informer a week and a half ago in early June. DeVries said she was still deciding when to reopen the inside of the bar, whose furniture was rearranged in order to encourage patrons to keep at a distance from other groups once that happens. “I’m a couple weeks out, maybe,” she said. “It’s a moving target, the opening date, which is fine.”
DeVries said she’d been keeping in touch with other downtown bar owners in an effort to coordinate decision-making about reopening their businesses, including by discussing best practices for the safety of customers and employees and sharing information about COVID-19 updates. In addition to that, she’s joined in on conversations with the Iowa Restaurant Association and the state’s Department of Inspections and Appeals.
“We’re just getting into this situation where people that we know, working in places that we know, are going to be getting more and more positive cases,” said DeVries, who has a degree in genetics from Iowa State University and previously worked as a research scientist. “Right now, it makes people a little fearful — as well I think it should.”
According to statistics compiled by the state’s Department of Public Health, 12 residents of Story County tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday — the day before the governor’s latest proclamation went into effect — matching the county’s previous single-day peak on June 4. That record was quickly surpassed Friday, when 22 new cases were logged for the day, possibly due in part to 10 student athletes at Iowa State University who reportedly contracted the virus. At the time of publication Saturday night, the state’s website shows an additional 17 positive cases reported for the county today.
Other downtown bars and restaurants have decided to reopen as they continue to navigate uncertainties about the continued presence of the novel coronavirus in Story County. Whiskey River, which serves burgers and other bar food, reopened after a proclamation allowing restaurants to begin serving dine-in customers on May 1 (its Ankeny location later closed temporarily when an employee tested positive for COVID-19). Aunt Maude’s, another Main Street restaurant, reopened its dining area — but not bar seating — more recently after previously offering just curbside orders. Last Tuesday, the City Council approved a request from Bar la Tosca to transfer its liquor license to Stomping Grounds, a Campustown cafe with the same owner that reopened its outdoor patio seating in late May ahead of a merger of the two establishments.
Bars “where a customer may purchase alcoholic beverages and in which the serving of food is incidental to the consumption of those beverages,” according to the state’s definition, were allowed to reopen on May 28. Dangerous Curves, a bikini bar, reopened then, as did Sportsman’s Lounge, which put a sign on its front door reminding customers to stay six feet apart. The Angry Irishmen, a bar near Sportsman’s, proceeded more slowly with a soft opening for morning regulars before extending its still-limited hours on Thursday.
Jason Tuttle, the public information officer for the Ames Police Department, said that although the governor’s proclamations have given local law enforcement agencies the authority to enforce social distancing violations, the department has not issued any citations, instead taking an educational approach. “We believe this is the best way to help our community work through these unprecedented times while protecting our employees from contracting the virus,” he told the Informer late last month. “We continually get guidance from our city attorney as the governor changes her proclamations, as well. There are some difficulties in trying to enforce some of the orders such as the six feet distance. We don’t carry a tape measure to measure this distance. We expect the public to continue to act responsibly and use good judgement.”
“If there was an egregious violation or repeated violations, we would likely consult with our city attorney to determine the best course of action,” Tuttle added. “We have the ability to shut down a bar because they operate under a liquor license approved by City Council.”
Before non-restaurant bars were allowed to reopen on May 28, Tuttle said the department received five calls about Whiskey River and one for Es Tas, a bar and grill in Campustown. Police responded to the Es Tas call on May 20 and found no violations. (Some Ames residents have also pointed out on social media that the patio of another Campustown bar, AJ’s Ultra Lounge, has been crowded by college students who appear to have little concern about social distancing recommendations.) Ames police also found no violations when responding to three calls about Whiskey River on May 7 and 16. Two additional calls from the downtown establishment were from bartenders who requested that police walk through because of how busy it had become.
The Iowa State University Police Department, which collaborates with the Ames PD but is an independent agency, did not respond to a request for information about social distancing-related calls it may have received since the governor began issuing coronavirus proclamations in March.
“officer spoke with 4 grandmothers who were using good social distancing measures as they sat in circle”
Tuttle said it was difficult to provide an exact count of the number of calls the city’s police department had received relating to potential social distancing violations since that time, because it doesn’t have a code designated to identify complaints as such in its logs. But he provided a list of examples dating back to March 24 after conducting a quick search, which turned up no records of complaints from the time bars were allowed to reopen at the end of May through Friday.
On March 24, there was a report of four skateboarders on the railroad tracks near the Georgie Tsushima Memorial Skate Park on Sixth Street. When officers arrived, according to the police log, no one was on the tracks. Several people were at the skate park, which didn’t close until two weeks later under a state order.
Just after noon on April 7, there was a call about “trespassers in lawn chairs in parking lot of Fresh Thyme,” a grocery store off of South Duff Avenue that permanently closed in November. The log adds that an “officer spoke with 4 grandmothers who were using good social distancing measures as they sat in circle.”
There were several calls about house parties and other gatherings of 10 or more people in April and, in the Campustown area when weather heated up, early May, which were prohibited at the time. Ames police also responded to two calls about groups of more than 10 people playing basketball. In each case, officers either reminded people to socially distance, kept an eye on the situation without issuing a citation, or took no action.
As Tuttle said, “We encouraged our officers to do their best at the beginning of the pandemic to keep their distance and only take law enforcement action when they observed a serious life or safety issue.”