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Lack Of Local Control Over Mask Mandates Frustrates Some Iowa Officials, Providers

kim reynolds
John Pemble
IPR file
According to the state attorney general's office, local governments in Iowa do not currently have the legal authority to issue mask mandates. That power lies with Gov. Kim Reynolds.

While communities across the country are implementing mask mandates, local governments in Iowa are not currently legally authorized to do so. This is a major frustration for some local officials and health care providers, at a time when coronavirus cases are surging in some parts of the state.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, local officials in Iowa have found that their abilities to take emergency action to respond to the pandemic have been preempted by the state government.

City and county governments learned they are not able to declare their own shelter-in-place orders, and according to the Iowa attorney general’s office, they’re not currently able to issue local mask mandates either.

Lynn Hicks, the communications director for Attorney General Tom Miller’s office, told IPR via email that in theory, local governments would have the authority to issue face covering requirements, so long as they are consistent with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ emergency declarations.

“The governor has issued proclamations dealing with PPE, and her proclamations order Iowans to follow public health measures consistent with guidance issued by IDPH. (Here is her latest proclamation.) IDPH guidance on cloth face coverings does not require their use,” he wrote. “Therefore, a local regulation requiring masks would not be consistent with the governor’s declarations.”

It would be great if all of our communities in Iowa could kind of start pushing back and demanding that mandating masks would be the way to go until we're through this perilous time. - Jill Dodds, Coralville City Councilor

That finding is a disappointment for Coralville City Councilor Jill Dodds, who is a retired nurse.

“It would be great if all of our communities in Iowa could kind of start pushing back and demanding that mandating masks would be the way to go until we’re through this perilous time,” Dodds said. “It’s frustrating and I would like to push back.”

A growing number of cities and states are issuing broad mask mandates, as renewed outbreaks are spurring local leaders to pause or even reverse the reopening process.

Still, according to the advocacy group #Masks4All, Iowa is one of just four states to not require masks in at least some public settings.

When asked about the lack of local control, Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers said he wishes he had a greater ability to emulate approaches that officials across the country are adopting.

He issued a public warning Wednesday that his county has seen a marked increase in cases in the past two weeks, especially among people aged 18 to 25.

“As an elected official, someone who has to oversee the health and wellbeing of both an organization and the citizens you represent, you wish you had every tool at your disposal,” Rogers said. “There are other states whose cases are declining because they took more extreme measures than the state of Iowa has.”

Rogers did add that when Linn County buildings reopen to the public for appointment-only services, everyone entering will be required to wear a mask.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s surge in cases is raising concerns in other parts of the country. New York is requiring that anyone traveling there from Iowa and 15 other states to quarantine for 14 days.

The preemption of local control over mask mandates is also a blow for Melvin Donaldson, an emergency medicine physician and epidemiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, who has been pressing officials in Johnson County on this issue.

I think making the decision to wear a mask versus not now is a lot easier than making the decision for burial versus cremation in the winter. - Melvin Donaldson, emergency medicine physician and epidemiologist, UIHC

He says he’s bracing for a surge in coronavirus cases, as many Iowans continue to flout the public health recommendations of maintaining social distance, wearing a face covering and practicing proper hand hygiene.

“I don't think that we can have a normal in-person fall semester at the university with the trend in Johnson County. I especially don't think we can have fall or winter sports at this rate,” he said.

According to an analysis by researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute, Johnson County is one of eight Iowa counties to currently be experiencing “unchecked community spread” of the virus, a point at which the researchers deem “stay-at-home orders are necessary."

Further disruption of everyday life for students and families, the potential loss of fall football, and more economic devastation is at stake, Donaldson says.

But more than that, he says that without further public health intervention, he’s preparing to “spend the winter signing covid death certificates."

“I think making the decision to wear a mask versus not now is a lot easier than making the decision for burial versus cremation in the winter,” Donaldson said.

A spokesperson for Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment on whether she would take action to allow local mask mandates.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter