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Iowa cracking down on social distancing in bars, restaurants
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Iowa cracking down on social distancing in bars, restaurants

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DES MOINES —Iowa officials are planning to issue fines and license suspensions in order to enforce social distancing requirements in bars and restaurants during the new coronavirus pandemic, a pair of state agencies announced Thursday.

Under Iowa’s current state public health emergency declaration, bars and restaurants are allowed to be open with no capacity restrictions, but they must employ social distancing measures. Businesses are required to create at least 6 feet of physical distance between each group or individual dining alone, and all patrons must be seated and cannot gather closer than 6 feet.

The state agencies that regulate bars and restaurants said they plan to work together to enforce those social distancing requirements, according to a news release.

For first offenses, businesses with an alcohol license will be fined $1,000 by the state Alcoholic Beverages Division, and restaurants will be issued a warning by the state Department of Inspections and Appeals.

A second offense will result in a seven-day suspension of a business’ alcohol or food license; a third offense will result in the business losing that license.

“Public safety is of the utmost importance. Although a majority of bars and restaurants are voluntarily complying with social distancing requirements, we will take these necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of Iowans,” Inspections and Appeals director Larry Johnson said in the news release.

A statement from the Iowa Restaurant Association also suggested just a small number of restaurants and bars are not adhering to the state's social distancing requirements.

“The vast majority of Iowa's hospitality establishments are strictly adhering to the mitigation and social distancing mandates addressed in the governor's most recent proclamation,” Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said in a news release. “Our industry simply can't take the economic devastation of another across-the-board shut down of on-premise service, additional limitations on alcohol service hours, or patron capacity reductions because a few establishments are unwilling to operate within current requirements. We appreciate that today's announced policy will not penalize the entire industry when it is just a few unwilling to comply.”

The latest report from the White House pandemic response task force says Iowa and eight of the state’s counties are “red zones,” indicating a high rate of spread of the coronavirus. In those areas, the task force recommends bars and gyms be closed, restaurants be limited to strict social distancing, and face masks be required inside all businesses.

Iowa does not have a face mask mandate, and bars and gyms are allowed to be open.

Statewide, Iowa’s coronavirus cases have surged back to near the state’s first peak of positive test results in early May, according to state public health data. Virus-related deaths and hospitalizations also have been climbing, albeit more gradually than cases.

As of Thursday morning, more than 43,730 Iowans have contracted the virus and 854 Iowans have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, since the pandemic first arrived here in late March.

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