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Editorial: Iowa State's Covid gamble

Editorial: Iowa State's Covid gamble


The two headlines in our Tuesday sports section were striking in the story they told:

“Iowa pauses all athletic activity,” read one.

“Cyclones plan for 25,000 at games,” read the other.

The Hawkeyes’ decision to suspend sports activities came after the university’s athletic department reported 93 more positive coronavirus test results among its 815 student-athletes, coaches and staff.

Iowa State has no such outbreak among its student-athletes, but these headlines come as both college communities have seen a huge spike in cases recently.

At one point Monday, the Ames and Iowa City metro areas had the highest number of coronavirus cases relative to their population than anywhere else in the country, according to the New York Times database. (On Tuesday, the Muskogee, Oklahoma, area surpassed them for the dubious top spot).

Last month, the Big 10 conference, which includes the University of Iowa, announced it was postponing its fall football season. But the Big 12, of which Iowa State is a member, said that it would go ahead with its season.

Iowa State officials say they have put in place social distancing and other mitigation protocols for their home opener against Louisiana on Sept. 12. And they warn that those who do not follow them will be called on it.

We know that outdoor activities are less risky than congregating indoors. And the reporting we’ve seen says the large outdoor protests against racial injustice, while also risky, did not lead to outbreaks.

Still, the idea that, amid such a huge spike in cases in these college towns, the university is arranging a gathering of up to 25,000 people, is extraordinary.

Just the message it sends is stunning.

University officials say they have a team of experts advising them. But there is disagreement in the medical community. Dr. John Paschen, chairman of the Story County Board of Health, said he is “sorely disappointed” in the decision, according to news reports.

We in the Quad-Cities – whether you live in Scott County or Rock Island County – should be concerned about this. Lots of kids from this area attend these universities. And at some point, they will be returning to their homes. Perhaps this weekend, for the Labor Day holiday.

These college towns aren't the only sites of growing coronavirus numbers. The White House's coronavirus task force on Sunday recommended far stricter mitigation measures be undertaken in 61 counties and metro areas throughout the state.

We in the Quad-Cities already are seeing erosion in the gains we made controlling the virus in the last part of July and early August. The 14-day moving average of daily cases is moving steadily upward again.

Iowa State’s athletic director, Jamie Pollard, laid out the rationale for the university’s decision in a letter to Cyclones fans, urging cooperation. He also noted the university expects to lose money. Steve Batterson reported that ISU expects a deficit of $17.5 million for the fiscal year that started in July. That includes a 10% salary reduction being taken by athletic department employees and a 20% operating budget cut.

The shortfall will be covered by accessing unrestricted resources held by the athletic department and the university.

“This is an incredible opportunity for Iowa State University to showcase its ability to successfully navigate the challenges associated with large outdoor events during a pandemic,” Pollard wrote in the letter. “In order for our plans to succeed, we need full buy-in from everyone.”

The odds of that happening seem long. We’re not encouraged given the images we saw of hard-partying students returning to campuses in the state. But it’s hard to completely blame them. We remember how we were when we were their age, and it’s not always fair to expect young adults to fully commit to restraint when many of their elders around the state, even those in positions of responsibility, are not.

We hope that Pollard is right, that the university will be successful.

If not, all of us will bear the consequences of their failure.

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