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Local
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Iowa’s virus deaths surpass grim forecast

On July 16, Iowa’s coronavirus deaths hit 777 — a toll that when predicted in late March seemed impossibly grim and was questioned by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Now the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research center at the University of Washington, predicts between 1,100 and 1,800 Iowans will die from COVID-19 by Nov. 1, with the lower number possible only if Iowans wear masks in public places.

“If everyone started wearing masks, that would turn this curve around,” said Abraham Flaxman, an associate professor of Health Metrics Sciences with the institute.

The prediction

As part of its state-by-state projections, which drew attention from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the institute predicted March 31 that 777 Iowans would die from COVID-19 by Aug. 4. Iowa actually hit that number earlier — July 16 — and as of Saturday, 826 Iowans have died because of the virus.

To put that into perspective, it’s more than double the number of people who died in car crashes in Iowa for all of 2019 and nearly three times the number of Iowans who died from influenza in the 2017-2018 flu season — one of the worst in recent history, according to the Des Moines Register.

Someone who knows Iowa’s COVID-19 deaths are more than just numbers is Marlene Chramosta, who lost her husband, Steven, to the disease April 22.

Steven Chramosta, 61, was one of at least 26 residents at Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids to die from COVID-19 as part of an outbreak at the center that affected at least 114 residents and staff.

“He had a temperature on the 30th of March,” Marlene Chramosta said. “He went to the hospital March 31. They put him immediately on a ventilator.”

Chramosta never heard her husband’s voice again.

“I have no one to talk with,” she said about her loss. “Even before he was diagnosed with COVID, I could at leave go over and talk with him through the window (at Heritage). It’s just not real that he’s not here.”

Early predictions

Early projections on COVID-19 infection and deaths factored in whether states had mandated social distancing.

Iowa’s March estimates were higher than they otherwise might have been, Flaxman said at the time, because the institute determined the state had not implemented any of four measures of social distancing, including ordering the closures of schools and non-essential services, ordering Iowans to shelter at home and severely limiting travel.

Reynolds said April 1 the institute’s prediction did not properly account for steps her administration had put in place, such as recommending schools close for at least a month and ordering many businesses closed.

When asked last week what he thought about the institute’s March 31 predictions proving accurate, the governor’s spokesman, Pat Garrett, said projections “will always fluctuate and will continue to do so.”

He didn’t answer a follow-up question about whether the governor’s office believed the new projections would turn out to be true.

Modeling changes

As the virus that causes COVID-19 continues to plague the United States with spikes in many states, including Iowa, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tweaked its modeling, Flaxman said.

“We’ve really had to change our models to get a better idea of what might happen after these mandates were lifted,” he said, referring to stay-at-home orders, travel bans and business closures. “That led us to a 2.0 advance of our model: Mandates that come on and off. The 3.0 version is not just mandates coming on and off, but things just getting bad again” and mandates being reinstated.

The institute’s prediction for Iowa as of Thursday ranged from about 1,100 deaths by Nov. 1 if universal masks are adopted and 1,800 deaths if mandates are eased.

The projection shows Iowa hospitals having enough beds and intensive care unit space for COVID-19 patients.

What seems to be at stake now, with school scheduled to resume in just a few weeks, is whether districts can safely allow in-person learning. Officials in many districts have been monitoring COVID-19 data to determine whether it’s safe to bring kids back to the classrooms.

Masks a factor

Joe Cavanaugh, head of the University of Iowa’s department of biostatistics and lead on the university’s own COVID-19 modeling site, said the widespread use of face masks and personal protective equipment would slow hospitalizations and deaths.

According to the UI’s COVID-19 models, virus deaths in the state will surpass 1,000 by the end of August without additional measures being put in place.

The spread of the virus was starting to slow under lockdown orders in mid-March, he added, but a rise in new cases followed orders from the governor to reopen businesses and other facilities. “More cases are followed by more hospitalizations and eventually by more deaths,” he wrote in an email.

The mayors of Iowa City and Muscatine have instituted mask orders for most public spaces in those cities — although their legal status is debatable — and many companies, including Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target, Aldi and Menard’s, are requiring customers to wear masks.

The Iowa Department of Public Health and Reynolds last week launched the #StepUpMaskUpIA campaign, encouraging Iowans to “follow important public health mitigation measures such as wearing a cloth face covering when in public,” according to a news release.

“COVID-19 is far from over, and I don’t want to go backward,” Reynolds said in a video address.

In a proclamation Friday, Reynolds extended for another 30 days existing restrictions on businesses, which include social distancing requirements for bars and restaurants, but did not impose any new limits or mask mandates.

Photos: Coronavirus threat impacts the Cedar Valley

Govt-and-politics
breaking featured
Smooth ride, bumpy future: Waterloo has the best streets in Iowa

WATERLOO — A dedicated local-option sales tax has given Waterloo the best streets among Iowa’s largest communities.

But a new report commissioned by the city found road conditions will take a turn for the worse soon if more money isn’t earmarked for major repairs.

The City Council hired HR Green Inc. of Cedar Rapids last year to evaluate the city’s current street funding and repair process.

The consultant noted Waterloo’s average street condition ranks tops among the state’s 10 largest cities based on 2018 data collected by the Iowa Department of Transportation through the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University.

A 1% local-option sales tax for street repairs approved by voters since 1991 and above-average use of asphalt road surfaces were cited as key reasons for the city scoring a 70.4 pavement condition index rating.

Council Bluffs and Iowa City were the only other major cities averaging over 60 on the scale that runs from 0 to 100.

Waterloo’s high ranking may surprise many motorists familiar with a few of the city’s rougher roads. But Mayor Quentin Hart wasn’t shocked.

“I’m not surprised by this rating,” Hart said. “We are happy to see that the efforts of our staff and investment to streets have gained long-needed recognition in comparison to other cities.

“Although this is the case we still have a tremendous amount of work to do,” he added. “We have several street overlay and reconstruction projects that are valuable to the long-range future of this community.”

The city has been receiving about $10 million each year in local-option sales tax revenue to repair its 420 miles of streets.

Roughly $6.5 million is spent on annual reconstruction and overlay contracts, which respectively involve completely rebuilding failing roads and putting down a new asphalt surface to extend their lives. Another $900,000 is used to put a seal coat on streets that were previously gravel surfaces.

The remaining local-option revenues cover salaries of engineers working on the program and provides matching funds for the construction of new roads, primarily serving economic development projects.

HR Green was retained to inventory the streets, develop maintenance schedules, evaluate funding, and set up a plan detailing which streets should be repaired over the next seven years.

But the firm said a lack of growth in sales tax receipts coupled with rising construction costs will cause Waterloo’s average street condition to begin deteriorating.

“The findings of the investigation determined that the current construction budget of approximately $7.5 million may not be sufficient based on long-term sustainability,” according to HR Green’s report.

“Spending has been relatively flat the past five years and revenue growth has been below the inflation rate,” it continued. “This means that, while the budget is likely more than sufficient right now, it will slowly lose its purchasing power and less work will be completed for the same amount in future years.”

HR Green indicated the first funding hurdle is expected in 2026. The model shows Waterloo would need an increase of $3 million annually, or a one-time $80 million bonding effort, to keep the average road condition steady over the next 15 years.

Put another way, the study said it would take an estimated $182 million today to bring all Waterloo streets up to “very good” condition. Based on current funding levels, that gap is expected to grow to $318 million by 2034.

But the study said keeping the current funding formula would not be disastrous.

“In fact, if no changes to funding occur in the next 15 years Waterloo would still have a higher average condition score than nearly every other major metropolitan area in the state has currently,” the report stated.

The report comes at a time when city policy makers have talked about dividing the local-option tax revenue for other uses. Several council members during the last budget process suggested asking voters for permission to switch a portion of the revenue from street repairs to provide property tax relief.

Hart said he still believed reallocating some of the sales tax money could be a viable option.

“If we propose shifting some funds, I would cap that amount to make sure that we continue working on roads but are able to provide some property tax relief for residents,” he said. “Other communities use these dollars for special projects, blight elimination, or direct property tax relief.

“In comparison, Waterloo is one of very few of the top 10 largest cities that don’t use local-option for property tax relief directly,” he added. “We will have to analyze any impacts and its positive impact on the city.”

Waterloo, Cedar Falls, and Cedar Rapids are the only communities among the state’s 15 most-populous cities that use local-option tax entirely for street repairs, while Council Bluffs covers streets and sewers.

Des Moines, Ames, Sioux City, Dubuque, Davenport, Bettendorf, West Des Moines, and Urbandale all dedicate at least half their local-option tax money for property tax relief.

City Engineer Jamie Knutson said he plans to hold a City Council work session in the future to discuss the findings of the HR Green report. The COVID-19 pandemic has put the meeting on the back burner.

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Photos: Executive Residency hotel sign

Local
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Which local businesses mandate masks? One woman's mission to find out

WATERLOO — Kate Washut and her husband love going out to eat in the Cedar Valley.

The Cedar Falls couple didn’t quit that habit when the coronavirus hit, continuing to visit favorite restaurants and coffee shops for curbside pickup and delivery after Gov. Kim Reynolds temporarily restricted sit-down dining.

But when places started opening back up, Washut started to question whether continuing to go out as she normally did — particularly as Black Hawk County’s coronavirus numbers climbed — was a smart decision.

“My husband is in the high-risk category (for coronavirus complications), so it was really important for us to lower our risk to the virus,” Washut said.

White House Task Force: Half of Iowa needs masks

State figures show the number of coronavirus cases in Iowa increased by more than 700 in the past 24 hours and that the number of deaths, hospitalizations and patients admitted to intensive care were all rising

Because each restaurant sets its own mask, social distancing and sanitation guidelines, Washut wasn’t sure which ones would be able to accommodate their preferences for safety.

“I was just really frustrated not knowing what our options were,” she said.

A couple of weeks ago, Washut started contacting her favorite restaurants to ask them what their policies are and sharing the information with her Facebook friends who were also looking for such establishments.

“People started reacting to it, thanking me for it,” she said. “Another person in the Cedar Rapids area said he had created a Facebook group and a Google Doc with what they were finding.”

Washut decided she’d try the same thing.

“It sounded like a pretty easy way to crowdsource,” she said.

She began the Facebook group, Cedar Valley Restaurant/Retail Mask Policies, and attached a publicly available Google Doc, where she added what she had found so far in Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Waverly.

The group had more than 1,200 members as of Thursday afternoon.

“Man, it really blew up,” Washut said of the group’s popularity. “People really appreciate it — they’re really passionate about the safety of our community.”

The Google Doc includes information on whether each business’s employees are masked, whether they have outdoor dining or curbside pickup, whether customer masks are required or encouraged, and whether indoor seating is arranged for social distancing.

There’s also a space for comments, where people can add other information about each business, such as whether hand sanitizer is available or if appointments are required.

“All those things factor into people’s decision-making,” she said.

Washut continues to do the bulk of updating the document when she’s not working at the software company she owns, Far Reach in Cedar Falls, but others have started contributing information as well.

Business owners have added their policies to the Google doc, and customers have commented in the group about their experiences. Information from different people on a particular business doesn’t always match.

“Somebody will go to a store and have one experience, someone else on a different day will have a different experience. In the spreadsheet, I try to highlight there’s not a consensus,” she said.

Nearly 120 eateries and 60 retail establishments in the area have been added so far, plus around 30 “other” places like gyms, salons, tattoo parlors and libraries.

Washut said she’s trying to keep the group apolitical, even posting a reminder on the page Thursday about keeping political commentary out.

“I sort of doubt that people who are not on board with wearing masks — they’re probably not even joining,” she said.

Ultimately, she sees the group as a handy resource for those looking for a low-risk dining or shopping experience in the Cedar Valley.

“Nobody really knows where this thing is going,” Washut said of the pandemic. “It’s been very unpredictable and up and down. So if there’s something I can do to help people make decisions that help keep them safe, I’m happy to do it.”

Mandates

From the group’s Google Doc, here are the Cedar Valley businesses Washut and others say have mask mandates or at least encourage masks for both employees and customers:

Don’t see your business listed? Click the button below to email The Courier and we’ll add it to our list.

Cedar Falls

Aldi

American Eagle

Bike Tech

Brown’s Shoes

Cedar Falls Rec Center

CVS

Dollar Tree

E-Clips Hair Studio

Family Dollar

Ginger Thai

Hall Bicycle

Hatchlings and Hens

Hurts Donuts

Hy-Vee

Jiva Salonspa

Kate and Co. Salon and Spa

KJ and Kompany

Kohl’s

Menards

Metro Records

Miss Wonderful

Natural Grocers

Panera Bread

Peekaboo Baby

Pura Vida Salon

Red Owl Tattoo

Salon Iris

Salon Zola

Scratch Cupcakery

Starbucks

Sub City (College Hill)

Target

Texture Salon

Three Pines Farm

Trinkets and Togs

Veridian Credit Union

Walgreens

Walmart

West Music

Wolfe Eye Clinic

World’s Window

Waterloo

Aldi

Amosson Chiropractic

Barnes and Noble

Bed, Bath and Beyond

Best Buy

Cedar Valley Bicycle Collective

CVS

Den Herder Veterinary Hospital

Dollar Tree

Family Dollar

Green Fields Health Center

Hair Gallery

Home Depot

Hy-Vee

Knox Eyecare

LA Nails

Lowes

Menards

Noodles and Company

Panera Bread

Petsmart

Ridgeway Dental

Sam’s Club

Scratch Cupcakery

Starbucks

Stuff Etc.

Target

TJ Maxx

Tractor Supply Co.

Trends Hair Salon

Trio Salon Spa

Veridian Credit Union

Walgreens

Walmart

Waterloo Public Library

Waterloo Urban Farmers Market


Dike-New Hartford's Reece Beuter pitches against Denver during Saturday night's game.


'Seed Time and Harvest,' lithograph, Grant Wood 


National
AP
Mnuchin promises aid package

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Saturday that Republicans were prepared to roll out the next COVID-19 aid package Monday and assured there was backing from the White House after he and President Donald Trump’s top aide met to salvage the $1 trillion proposal that had floundered just days before.

Mnuchin said extending an expiring unemployment benefit — but reducing it substantially — was a top priority for Trump. The secretary called the $600 weekly aid “ridiculous” and a disincentive for people to go back to work. He also promised a fresh round of $1,200 stimulus checks would be coming in August.

“We’re prepared to move quickly,” Mnuchin said after he and Mark Meadows, the president’s acting chief of staff, spent several hours with GOP staff at the Capitol. He said the president would “absolutely” support the emerging Republican package.

Mnuchin’s optimistic assessment came before Democrats weighed in publicly on the updated proposal, which remained only a starting point in negotiations with House and Senate leaders in the other party. He said he recently called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of shuttle negotiations next week on the broader deal.

The White House and Senate Republicans raced to regroup after plans to introduce a $1 trillion virus rescue bill collapsed Thursday amid GOP infighting over its size, scope and details. It was expected to bring $105 billion to help schools reopen, new money for virus testing and benefits for businesses, including a fresh round of loans, tax breaks and a sweeping liability shield from COVID-related lawsuits.

The expiration of the $600 weekly jobless benefits boost propelled the Republicans to act. Democrats already approved their sweeping $3 trillion plan from Pelosi two months ago. With millions of Americans about to be suddenly cut off from the aid starting Saturday, they braced to prevent social and economic fallout.

The White House floated plans to cut the additional aid back to $100 a week, while Senate Republicans preferred $200, with general agreement about phasing out the flat boost in favor of one that ensures no more than 70% of an employee’s previous pay.

Mnuchin also said the $1,200 direct payments would be based on the same formula from the earlier aid bill. Individuals making $75,000 or less, for example, received the full amount and those making more than $75,000 received less than $1,200 depending on their income. Individuals earning above $100,000 did not qualify for the payment.

Meanwhile, chaos and disarray marked the start of the school year as families await directives from district officials and, where they have a choice, make agonizing decisions over whether to enroll their children online or in person — often with very little guidance.

If their kids are not in classrooms, parents will have to line up child care — or find the time to help their learn online. They have no idea if it will be safe to send their children to school — or whether the school doors will open at all or stay open if someone is diagnosed with the virus.

Further complicating decisions, in some public school districts, kids who opt for online instruction won’t be able to participate in in-person extracurricular activities.

The decision over how kids will be schooled is particularly fraught in low-income areas and communities of color that bear the double burden of being places both most affected by the pandemic and ones where students could benefit most from being in school, said Dr. Kiran Joshi, senior medical officer and co-lead of the Cook County Health Department, which serves 2.4 million people around Chicago.

“I think there’s clearly a lot of value in in-person instruction,” Joshi said. “I think, though, that that has to be balanced with the need to control the pandemic.”

About 70% of Americans think schools should open in the fall, though most of those think it should happen with restrictions, according to a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs.

A resurgence of cornavirus infections in much of the United States adds to the uncertainty.

The U.S. leads the world with more than 4.1 million confirmed infections and over 146,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, more than 15.7 million infections and over 640,000 deaths have been reported.

In other developments:

  • The tallies for people hospitalized in New York with the coronavirus are continuing to drop to the lowest levels since the pandemic began, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday. There were at least 646 people hospitalized in the state on Friday, a new low since March 18 and down slightly from the previous day, the Democratic governor said in a statement. The number of reported deaths in the state rose by one, to 10.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Saturday that he had tested negative for the new coronavirus, based on a fourth test since he said July 7 that he had the virus.
  • Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff is in isolation as is his wife, who contracted COVID-19, Ossoff confirmed Saturday.