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As Gov. Reynolds Issues A Partial Mask Requirement, Health Experts Worry It Sends Mixed Messages

Kim Reynolds
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statewide partial mask requirement after previously saying the move was unnecessary and unenforceable.

This week as new coronavirus hospitalizations continue to set new records across Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds issued new restrictions including a partial indoor mask requirement. But some public health experts worry mixed messaging from the governor is undermining an effective public health strategy.

On Monday evening as Iowa’s daily COVID-19 hospitalizations and death counts once again hit record highs, Gov. Kim Reynolds gave a rare, prime time statewide address.

After months of declining to issue any mask requirements, she announced new mitigation efforts to slow the rapid, widespread transmission, including a partial indoor mask requirement.

"It's important to step up and slow the spread, to make sure that Iowans stay safe, to make sure that our hospitals can treat everyone who needs care," she said.

The move was met with criticism from some public health experts saying Reynolds’ restrictions, which came with long lists of exceptions, still aren’t going far enough to stop the spread of the virus.

But the new requirement marks a shift in her messaging. During the course of the pandemic, Reynolds has rejected any kind of mask mandate, saying such a move was unnecessary and unenforceable, instead focusing her attention on encouraging, not requiring, Iowans to wear them.

Previously, she went so far as to rebuff local governments’ efforts to issue their own mandates.

"I would say that what they did is they strongly recommend because they know that it doesn't —it's not enforceable," she said at an Aug. 27 press conference, referencing guidance previously issued by the state attorney general saying the state preempts local response to the public health emergency.

But some experts say Iowa’s ongoing battle over mask mandates has long sent Iowans mixed messages at a time when public health officials are desperately trying to get them on the same page.

"I think the rejection of a mask mandate is really rejection of willingness to say that everybody should do this," said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and professor at the Yale School of Public Health, "and to say it's voluntary, you know, something's voluntary, it's sort of like, oh, maybe I'll do it, maybe I won't."

Gonsalves said the point of mask mandates isn’t to shame or punish people into wearing them — that doesn’t work in public health — mandates help leaders like Reynolds send the public a clear message.

"It's to say, this is probably the most important thing Iowans can do to prevent the epidemic. I'm issuing a mandate because I think it's an important thing to do, and everybody should wear it. And it's mandatory," he said.

But some Iowans still oppose any kind of mask mandate, saying they are unenforceable, ineffective or amount to government overreach.

At a Linn County Board of Health meeting on Monday, resident Amy Homan voiced her opposition to a proposed countywide mask mandate enforced by a fine.

"By implementing a fine, it's going to do nothing but focus our police force on trying to enforce something that, quite frankly, I don't believe is really enforceable," she said. "And it's going to continue to divide the community."

However, some local health departments with mandates in place say they’ve helped, even if they weren’t sanctioned by the state.

Sam Jarvis, the community health manager with the public health department in Johnson County, the first county in the state to enact a mandate in August, said it inspired other local municipalities in the county to issue their own.

"It really, you know, synergized, and really drove home the point that here in this community, we know that the prevailing evidence is that masks work, that we all need to do that to protect others," he said.

Jarvis said the county has long pushed for a statewide mandate, saying it would only make this message stronger.

"It's a very clear message that when you're around others, people need to wear masks," he said.

In Wayne County, public health administrator Shelley Bickel said county supervisors passed a resolution Monday mandating masks and other mitigation strategies, as the county of about 6,400 has recently faced a 14-day average positivity rate above 40 percent.

"People just need to stay home, but they don't," Bickel said.

Bickel said she feels Reynolds and state health officials don’t always understand how difficult it’s been to get people to follow recommendations in her rural community.

"Locals feel like there's a lot of mixed messages. So here we are, trying to tell people what to do. And then, you know, she wants people to be responsible, but I guess they haven't been," she said.

Bickel said she’s pleased Reynolds has put in new restrictions. She just hopes the governor will stay vigilant even as cases decrease.