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Iowa Plans Events To Attract Large Crowds Just Like Pre-Pandemic Occasions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Summer is back, and that means big events and big crowds for the first time since the pandemic began. But are these gatherings safe in places where demand for the coronavirus vaccine has stalled? Here's Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Are you longing for a pre-pandemic summer experience? Well, so are a lot of folks, and that raises a bit of a quandary. Take the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, for example. More than 15,000 bicyclists have signed up for the famous weeklong ride next month that's seen as the king of group social bike rides. That's well above usual registration numbers. Ali Campbell is one of the volunteer organizers for the overnight stop in Iowa Falls. She's walking through a city park where cyclists will eat, take in live music, maybe a few beers.

ALI CAMPBELL: So, like, our band stage will be kind of our side stage. The RAGBRAI main stage is going to be on the other side over there.

MASTERS: Thousands of cyclists will wake up the next morning and pedal 70 miles to the next stop. Campbell says she wouldn't feel so optimistic if the COVID-19 vaccine wasn't widely available.

CAMPBELL: There's a format that's obviously constantly changing and probably will change 10 times between now and then. But I feel confident in people, and I feel confident that we can do this successfully.

MASTERS: While vaccines are available, proof of vaccinations will not be required. Luckily, most of RAGBRAI is outdoors, where COVID-19 is less transmissible. Organizers are encouraging people to wear masks in crowded situations. They're putting up more hand sanitizing stations and requiring pre-ride health screenings. Dr. Megan Srinivas is an infectious disease physician from Fort Dodge, which is another town along the route. She's concerned about jumping back into big events like this when vaccination rates are still quite low in many parts of the state.

MEGAN SRINIVAS: We have been trying to do everything we can to really tamp down on this transmission. Prematurely letting our guard down because we're sick and tired of the pandemic is only going to worsen the propagation and how long this lasts.

MASTERS: In August, the Iowa State Fair will return to Des Moines, and it's known to attract upwards of a million people. But Iowa is nowhere near herd immunity, and Republican Governor Kim Reynolds has consistently pushed back against mitigation efforts. Last month, she signed a bill in the middle of the night on the last day of the legislative session, banning mask mandates in schools and local governments. Here she is on Fox News, talking up her pandemic restrictions pushback.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

KIM REYNOLDS: I started the legislative session by signing into law an option that gave parents the opportunity to choose 100% percent in school, five days a week, all day. And I'm proud to say that I closed the session signing into law not allowing schools, local governments the ability to initiate a mask mandate.

MASTERS: It's part of continuing efforts by Republican leaders here to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror. States like Texas and South Carolina have also banned mask mandates. Dr. Jorge Salinas is an epidemiologist for the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He says politicians should not be making these decisions.

JORGE SALINAS: Public health needs to be agnostic. Public health is not wedded to any political persuasion.

MASTERS: Salinas says this summer is a time when people can start reengaging with events like that bike ride across Iowa. Right now, less than half of Iowa's population is fully vaccinated. Public health experts agree getting more shots into the arms of those returning to these crowded staples of summer are key, especially in states like Iowa that have not had as strict COVID-19 mitigation efforts in place.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXHOLE SONG, "SPECTACLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.