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Linn County Supervisors, Mayors Urge Reynolds To Let Them Issue Local Mask Mandates

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proclaimed that at least 50 percent of schooling must occur in-person.
Charlie Neibergall
The Linn County Board of Supervisors, along with mayors across the county, issued a proclamation Wednesday asking Gov. Kim Reynolds to let them mandate mask use in their communities.

A coalition of mayors in Linn County are joining with the county’s Board of Supervisors and Board of Health to formally urge Governor Kim Reynolds to let them issue their own mask mandates to slow the spread of the coronavirus, saying state preemption on the issue has left them "somewhat hamstrung."

Iowa remains a national outlier in not requiring face coverings in at least some public settings, according to a nationwide policy tracker maintained by the advocacy group #Masks4All.

Local officials in Iowa are becoming increasingly outspoken in criticizing Governor Kim Reynolds’ inaction on face coverings. Some of the state’s top medical organizations, faith leaders, and voters have also called on her to act, or authorize local officials to do so.

Elected leaders across Linn County, including the mayors of Cedar Rapids, Central City, Ely, Fairfax, Hiawatha, Marion, Mount Vernon, Palo, Praireburg, Springville and Robins formally made that request by approving a joint proclamation on Wednesday.

Reynolds has maintained that local mask mandates are not legally authorized. While some communities have issued them anyway (in consultation with their own attorneys, who disagree with Reynolds’ legal opinion,) Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson said Wednesday he doesn’t believe the law is currently on counties’ side on this issue.

He says now is the time for Reynolds to change that.

“There’s political support for the governor to do this, to allow us… or to issue a statewide mask mandate, and let counties and cities opt-out of it. Either one. I don’t care at this point,” Oleson said.

Oleson pointed to a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday that shows 73% of Iowa voters believe cities and towns should be able to set their own mask rules.

The proclamation comes as communities grapple with Reynolds’ mandate that K-12 students return to the classroom this fall for at least half of their instructional time, with no statewide requirements that they wear face coverings while doing so.

At a coronavirus briefing Wednesday, Reynolds dismissed as “scare tactics” a reporter’s question about Iowans’ concerns that a student may get sick or a teacher may die of COVID-19, due to the governor’s return to learn requirements.

Oleson pushed back on that sentiment Wednesday.

“We are weeks away from our kids going back to school and we’re acting like the press is making this all up, ginning up this pandemic. Couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “We’ve got to do something.”

Ben Rogers, chair of the board of supervisors, also said he’s scared about a resurgence of the virus when students go back to school, and how that could affect his own kids, parents and in-laws.

“We find ourselves isolated and alone on an island, by ourselves, with no state mandate for wearing of masks, and now mandated in-person school,” Rogers said. “It is, as a parent, pretty terrifying for our children and for what that could mean for me and for my wife and our neighbors.”

Supervisor Stacey Walker said that, despite broad agreement from public experts across the country that masks are one of the few ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus, local officials’ hands are tied.

“As local officials, both on the board of health and board of supervisors, trying to do everything we can do to keep our residents safe, trying to do everything we can do to make decisions that we know will benefit our residents, and we have had that ability effectively usurped,” Walker said.

Local public health officials in Iowa have also found themselves unable to take certain decisive actions to curtail the spread of the pandemic. The Black Hawk County Public Health Department was not legally authorized to shut down a Tyson meatpacking plant during an outbreak earlier this spring, though more than 1,000 workers there contracted the virus and some died.

Speaking generally about the importance of a locally appropriate response, Black Hawk County Public Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said one-size-fits-all policies are not adequately protecting Iowans from COVID-19.

“It’s important that at the local level our responses are based on our population’s needs. That’s one of the things that’s perhaps been frustrated, for us public health directors, especially in the larger counties is, that we know what to do for our communities,” Egbuonye said. “My hope is that at one point our elected officials will be allowed to have a response plan according to the needs of our community.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter