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Iowa City Mayor Issues Mask Mandate After Governor Declared Local Orders 'Moot'

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To control the spread of the coronavirus, Iowa City residents and visitors must now wear face coverings in public, with some exceptions.

Effective immediately, Iowa City residents and visitors must wear face coverings in all public settings, with some exceptions, under an order issued by Mayor Bruce Teague Tuesday afternoon.

Teague said the local mandate is an effort to curb further spread of the coronavirus, which as of Tuesday had already infected at least 39,000 Iowans and killed 802.

“This simple act will help save lives, jobs, businesses, schools and help our community regain some sense of normalcy as we stop transmission of this novel disease,” Teague said.

With tens of thousands of college students expected to return to the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City next month, Teague says now is the time to act.

"This simple act will help save lives, jobs, businesses, schools and help our community regain some sense of normalcy as we stop transmission of this novel disease."
- Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague

The local mandate defies statements by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s Office that local governments are not currently authorized to issue such orders.

IDPH guidance on cloth face coverings does not require their use. Therefore, a local regulation requiring masks would not be consistent with the governor’s declarations,” Miller’s spokesman Lynn Hicks told IPR last month.

But as case counts continue to rise in Iowa, some local officials are increasingly voicing skepticism of the state’s guidance.

“We as communities have to prioritize the health, safety and wellbeing of our community and be motivated to do the right thing,” Iowa City Councilmember Pauline Taylor said Monday night at a meeting of local elected officials from across Johnson County. “And the right thing is mandating masks, whatever the consequences might be.”

To establish the authority to issue the mandate, the Iowa City order cites home rule provisions in the Iowa Constitution and Iowa Code that empower cities to “preserve and improve the peace, safety, health, welfare, comfort and convenience of its residents”, and further empowers mayors in particular during times of emergencies.

City of Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes told IPR that Teague did consult with her in developing the order and that her legal opinion is that the action is authorized.

Iowa City mask mandate effective immediately

Under the order, residents and visitors to Iowa City must wear face coverings in all public settings, including in grocery stores, pharmacies and public transportation, as well as when outside, if it's not possible to maintain six feet of distance from others.

“No business that is open to the public may provide service to a customer or allow a customer to enter its premises, unless the customer is wearing a face covering as required by this order,” the document reads in part.

Face coverings will not be required for people actively eating or drinking at a restaurant, those exercising at a “moderate or high intensity," and those traveling in a car alone or with household members.

“We only can control the spread by assuming that anyone can be shedding the virus [...] That debate is pretty much over. I think now it is more a question of policy and how we can maximize face covering use.”
Dan Diekema, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases, University of Iowa College of Medicine

Exceptions will be made for children under the age of 2, those with certain health conditions and people actively engaged in a public safety role.

Those who don’t follow the order can face a simple misdemeanor, though a citation “shall be a last resort," according to the order.

Debate remains contentious

The debate around local mask mandates continues to be a contentious one.

The legal uncertainty around whether the local orders are authorized has dissuaded local officials in Coralville and Scott County from issuing a mandate.

Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson has struggled to have her order enforced because other local officials aren’t convinced the ordinance is legal. After making her announcement earlier this month, Broderson has faced vitriol and death threats, according to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Meanwhile, public health experts are saying the scientific evidence of the efficacy of face masks has been clearly established, despite mixed messages from federal officials early on in the pandemic.

Dan Diekema, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, voiced his support for local mandates at a meeting of Johnson County officials on Monday.

“We only can control the spread by assuming that anyone can be shedding the virus. That’s very straightforward, it means putting a barrier in front of the nose and mouth: a cloth face mask or face shield,” Diekema said. “That debate is pretty much over. I think now it is more a question of policy and how we can maximize face covering use.”

Other local officials considering mask rules

Further local action may be forthcoming; last week, Johnson County Public Health Director Dave Koch issued a memo to municipalities throughout the county, urging them to take unified action in passing face mask resolutions.

“For this strategy to work, we need everyone to put this measure, like other public health measures into practice. Many organizations or workplaces have already implemented these practices, but to be most effective, we need everyone and everywhere to practice this with us,” the memo reads in part.

"The truth is, is that to ultimately get to a decision, it will likely have to end up in court."
- Alan Kemp, Executive Director, Iowa League of Cities

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness declined to comment on the Iowa City ordinance but confirmed to IPR her office is researching the legal authority of local boards of health to issue their own requirements.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is slated to discuss a “Board of Health recommendation on face coverings” on Wednesday.

Other municipalities have been consulting with their own legal staff on the scope of their authority to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, including through mask orders, Iowa League of Cities Executive Director Alan Kemp told IPR.

Ultimately, a final and binding determination of who has the authority to mandate face coverings may need to be settled in the courts, he said.

“It’s somewhat unsettled,” Kemp said. “The truth is, is that to ultimately get to a decision, it will likely have to end up in court.”