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Johnson County Board Of Health Approves Mask Ordinance, Teeing Up Final Approval By Supervisors

A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.
Max Posner
/
NPR
The Johnson County Board of Health has approved a face covering ordinance, teeing up final approval by the board of supervisors.

The Johnson County Board of Health has unanimously approved an ordinance mandating the use of face coverings in public, which the county attorney has advised will be enforceable, once it's approved by the board of supervisors.

Public health experts broadly agree that the use of masks is one of the few tools available to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which as of Tuesday had killed more than 157,000 Americans.

The ordinance requires every person in Johnson County to wear a face covering in any indoor public setting, as well as outdoors when maintaining six feet of distance is not possible. There are some exceptions, including for those actively eating or drinking at a restaurant, people with certain health conditions, and children under the age of two.

The vote Tuesday night is the latest effort by local government officials to defy Gov. Kim Reynolds’ approach to the state’s coronavirus response.

Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s office have both said local governments are not legally authorized to issue such orders; mayors and supervisors have done so anyway.

Reynolds also faces resistance on her requirement that schools maintain in-person instruction unless they meet certain virus-related benchmarks and see double digit transmission rates, at which point they can request permission to change to a hybrid or remote teaching model. On Monday, two school districts announced they would stick to their local plans, in defiance of Reynolds’ policy.

Johnson County Board of Health members have said their push for an ordinance is spurred by concerns that students’ return to classrooms later this month, particularly university students, will spark a dangerous resurgence in the virus if not mitigated.

“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 order reads in part.

According to the advocacy group #Masks4All, Iowa is one of just two states to not require masks in at least some public settings. On Tuesday the governor of Mississippi joined the bipartisan group of governors who have mandated mask use statewide.

Kim Bergen-Jackson, the administrator at the Oaknoll Retirement Residence in Iowa City, spoke in support of the order at the virtual meeting Tuesday night. She says the measure will help save the lives of her residents.

“This is not a political problem for me. This is not a hoax or a joke. We’re not gambling with your life, but the lives of my friends, my 70, 80, 90 and 100 year old friends, who want to be here to live another year older,” Bergen-Jackson said.

Chris Arch, pastor of Good News Bible Church in Iowa City questioned the board about why there isn’t an exception for places of worship, noting that his own church is providing hand sanitizer and has spaced sanctuary seating to allow more than six feet of distance.

“One of our concerns is, bars and restaurants are being allowed to operate unmasked, and I guess my question is, why shouldn’t we also?” Arch asked. “I guess I’m wondering why it is that we should not be allowed freedom of conscience in this area ourselves.”

Worship services have been demonstrated to be “superspreader” events, and the risk increases when people are singing together.

A CDC study has shown that singing is an especially high-risk activity; a report on a choir in Washington State found that 87% of the people who attended a two and a half hour choir practice with a symptomatic individual later contracted the virus, ultimately resulting in two deaths.

The ordinance now goes to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors for final approval, with a vote scheduled for this Thursday.