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Johnson County Board Of Health Advances Mask Ordinance, Final Vote Slated For Monday

A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.
Max Posner
The Johnson County Board of Health is moving ahead with a plan to mandate the use of face coverings in public. County officials believe the ordinance would be legally enforceable, while other local orders are not.

The Johnson County Board of Health is moving forward with a plan to mandate the use of face coverings in public settings, in order to control the spread of the coronavirus. After approving the language of the proposed ordinance at a special meeting Tuesday night, the board is slated to hear public comment and take a formal vote on the ordinance at a meeting next Monday.

The Board of Health gave initial approval of the wording of the order, which characterizes COVID-19 as “a continuing and immediate threat” to public health.

“The following ordinance is not intended to be punitive or stigmatizing and is in the best interest of health, safety, and economic recovery. A violation shall constitute a simple misdemeanor,” the proposed order reads in part.

The week after the Iowa City mayor and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors issued their own face coverings mandates amid some legal uncertainty, the Johnson County Board of Health is on track to implement its own ordinance, which county officials believe would be legally binding.

Last Thursday County Attorney Janet Lyness told the Board of Supervisors the order they were approving “basically is unenforceable," based on her legal interpretation that counties do not share the same emergency powers that mayors are granted under Iowa Code.

Lyness did note she believed an ordinance passed first by the Board of Health and then the Board of Supervisors would be authorized.

Tuesday night, the Board of Health took a step closer to that goal.

Members of the board say they’re eager to pass and implement a face covering order before University of Iowa students return to Iowa City for the fall semester, which starts August 24th.

“That’s one of the reasons we would like to ensure that our timeline is as tight as possible,” said Board of Health Chair Peter Wallace. “So that hopefully people would know and have a couple weeks to get used to the ordinance, if they live here. And the university would make the necessary changes if they have to, but at least accommodations, for the students coming back.”

Board member Bonnie Rubin agreed with Wallace that county officials would likely have to work with the university to implement the face covering mandate.

“It’s like what you say Dr. Wallace, if and when we do pass this, we really need to work with the university to make sure that they consistently apply what we expect?” she asked Wallace.

“We need to. Yeah,” Wallace replied. “I mean this is a huge challenge for them. I don’t have any idea how they’re going to cope with the dormitory situation."

The University of Iowa has previously announced its own face covering policies, requiring that everyone cover up when inside a campus building, unless alone in a private office.

The continued spread of the coronavirus in Iowa, and the lack of statewide mask mandate or a reversal of reopening measures, has spurred city and county officials to take action at the local level.

This week, a coalition representing thousands of Iowa doctors and medical professionals joined the call, sending a letter to Gov. Kim Reynolds urging her to order the use of face masks, which will in turn “dramatically slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives."

They noted the spread of the virus in Iowa is now largely being fueled by young people, though the increased scope of the pandemic means vulnerable Iowans continue to be effected, preventing families from visiting loved ones in long term care facilities, upending fall plans for K-12 public education and spurring a “crisis” at the state prison in Fort Dodge.

Reynolds’ office has maintained that while she encourages Iowans to wear face coverings, she doesn’t believe a government mandate is appropriate.

As of Tuesday evening, COVID-19 had killed 839 Iowans and 149,551 Americans nationwide.