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READ: Iowa City Mandates Masks In Public Spaces, Including Schools

A student wears a face mask while at the Post Road Elementary School in White Plains, N.Y., last October. A recent study found the number of children contracting coronavirus is on the rise.
Mary Altaffer
A student wears a face mask while at the Post Road Elementary School in White Plains, N.Y., last October.

Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague has issued a mask mandate requiring every person in the city to wear a face covering in public spaces, citing the “alarming rate” of coronavirus cases and the return of thousands of students to the University of Iowa, where classes resume next week.

The order released Thursday night details that every person in the city must mask up when in any indoor public setting, specifically noting the mandate applies to grocery stores, restaurants and bars, houses of worship, as well as public school buildings and University of Iowa academic buildings and business offices.

The mandate also applies to outdoor settings when keeping 6 feet of distance from others is not possible, and when using public transportation or private ride services such as a taxi or carpool.

There are exemptions for those under the age of 2, individuals with certain medical conditions and anyone engaged in a public safety role, including law enforcement and EMS.

Extending the mask mandate to schools would be a critical step for university faculty, staff and students, hundreds of whom have signed a petition calling on the Iowa Board of Regents and UI administrators to mandate masks and vaccines on campus.

It also would be a key step for public school students under the age of 12 who currently don’t qualify for the vaccines and are therefore at an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus. The AP has reported that record numbers of children are being hospitalized due to the highly infectious delta variant, though researchers can’t say with certainty if the strain causes more severe disease than earlier versions of the virus.

Still, both the Iowa City Community School District and the University of Iowa said Friday that while they will continue to encourage mask wearing, they will not comply with the city's mask mandate. According to reporting by the Gazette, the order "does not and cannot apply" to the university, which is governed by state law and the Iowa Board of Regents, which announcedin May it was lifting its mask requirement.

The Iowa City order is in defiance of the policies of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who in May signed a bill into law banning schools from requiring masks, and barring municipalities from implementing mask mandates that affect private property.

"A city shall not adopt an ordinance, motion, resolution, or amendment, or use any other means, that requires the owner of real property to implement a policy relating to the use of facial coverings that is more stringent than a policy imposed by the state," the law reads in pertinent part.

This week, U.S. Department of Education officials warned Reynolds and other Republican governors who banned mask mandates in schools that the agency is exploring possible legal action against them.

The Iowa City mandate, which went into effect at midnight on Thursday, cites home rule authority granted to municipalities and powers granted to mayors to “govern the city by proclamation” during times of “emergency or public danger”.

Teague also declared a civil emergency Thursday night, “due to the dangers presented by COVID-19 and its confirmed community spread." The order authorizes the mayor to take “extraordinary measures” to maintain health, welfare and safety in the community, including sidestepping the usual purchasing process for city goods and services.

The order notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deemed masks a “critical tool” in the fight against COVID. The mandate also quotes from previous statements by the director of the Johnson County Department of Public Health, calling on all residents to help protect others and save lives.

“[W]e do have the tools to reduce risk to ourselves and each other. We just have to use them. This action requires the collective actions of everyone,” the order reads.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 6:00 p.m. on August 20, 2021 to reflect that both the Iowa City Community School District and the University of Iowa have announced they will continue to encourage mask wearing but will not comply with the City of Iowa City's mask mandate.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter