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Iowa Governor Issues Partial Mask Requirement And Gathering Restrictions With Exceptions

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced a new partial mask requirement Monday evening and put some restrictions on gatherings and businesses to slow the spread of coronavirus in the state. But there are numerous exceptions to the new mitigation measures that are being implemented as hospitals are already struggling to care for a surge in patients with severe cases of COVID-19.

“Right now, the pandemic in Iowa is worse than it has ever been,” Reynolds said at the start of her primetime address, the first ever by an Iowa governor on live, statewide TV.

Reynolds said 52,000 Iowans tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks, the same number of cases Iowa recorded from March to mid-August. Iowa is third in the nation for new coronavirus cases per 100,000 population.

More people are dying than ever before. And hospitalizations reached a new record of 1,510 Monday, with a record 288 patients being treated in Iowa’s intensive care units.

“Our health care system is being pushed to the brink,” Reynolds said. “The number of Iowans in the hospital with COVID-19 has doubled to the point where one out of every four hospital patients has the virus.”

Reynolds said the current rate of more than 200 new COVID-19 patients entering hospitals each day is not sustainable. Hospitals have already scaled back elective procedures, and Reynolds said the increase in COVID-19 patients could ultimately limit emergency care for Iowans with other conditions.

Reynolds again urged Iowans to follow public health precautions.

“If Iowans don’t buy into this, we lose,” Reynolds said. “Businesses will close once again, more schools will be forced to go online, and our health care system will fail. And the cost in human life will be high. So now is the time to come together for the greater good.”

Infectious disease experts and the White House Coronavirus Task Force have recommended Reynolds enact public health measures over the past several months.

Dr. Eli Perencevich, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, called Reynolds’ new mitigation measures “more smoke and mirrors.”

“This further delays implementation of truly effective measures,” he said.

Partial mask requirement

After repeatedly declining to issue a mask mandate or allow local governments to enforce their own, Reynolds has issued a partial mask requirement.

It applies to those who are in a public, indoor space and within 6 feet of someone else for 15 minutes or longer.

The CDC’s guidance says people should wear masks in public or any setting where they will be around other people. It does not recommend a certain timeframe or distance.

Reynolds also provides exceptions for schools, religious gatherings, those participating in sports or exercise, people sitting at a table in a bar or restaurant, and more. Public health experts are concerned the message is too confusing, and it provides a lot of loopholes and opportunities for coronavirus to be transmitted.

Restrictions on gatherings and businesses

Indoor gatherings are now restricted to no more than 15 people, and outdoor gatherings are restricted to no more than 30. These limits don’t apply to high school, college, and professional sports, religious gatherings, and “ordinary” business or government gatherings.

Restaurants and bars must close at 10:00 p.m. Social distancing is required between groups, but there are no limits on capacity. Public health experts worry this ignores the fact that the virus can be spread in the air in poorly ventilated spaces.

Group fitness classes are prohibited.

The full proclamation below has information about additional restrictions.

Canceling elective surgeries and procedures

Reynolds has ordered hospitals to limit elective procedures that require ICU and observational beds to no more than half of September levels.

Many hospitals have already started scaling back elective procedures, meaning some Iowans are already not getting the care they need in a timely manner. Reducing elective procedures also means hospitals are reducing a major source of funding at a difficult time.

In an online video Q&A Monday, UIHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Brennan said their ability to do surgeries that are, “even considered essential,” is already at risk with the surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Many of us have really decreased those that are elective and in need of beds…but gradually increasing that threshold means that we won’t be doing surgeries that we would have done in a timely way,” Dr. Brennan said. “So that is on the horizon. And many of us have done that already and are considering being more aggressive about that.”

Dr. Brennan recommends Iowans only socialize with members of their own household, social distance and wear a mask in public, and practice good hand hygiene.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter