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Lawmakers Return To Iowa Capitol Amid Pandemic, Protests

matt windschitl
John Pemble
House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, speaks in the Iowa House Wednesday.

Lawmakers returned to the Iowa Capitol Wednesday to resume the legislative session as the coronavirus pandemic and nightly protests for racial justice continue.

With the coronavirus still spreading in Iowa, the legislative session looks different than it did when it left off in March.

Lawmakers don’t have clerks sitting next to them, and meetings are held in bigger spaces and livestreamed to promote social distancing. The Statehouse is much emptier than is typical for a legislative session, as many members of the public and lobbyists aren’t there in person.

Most Democrats wore a mask or face shield, and most Republicans did not.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, has been on the front lines of the George Floyd protests in Des Moines, and he delivered the opening prayer in the Iowa House of Representatives. He said the nation and state are in turmoil, and he prayed lawmakers would have the strength to provide leadership during this time.

“Dear God, give us strength to be able to stand together, to work together,” Abdul-Samad said. “Give us strength to be able to reach out to one another, no matter what ethnicity, no matter what religion, no matter what political discipline.”

In the Iowa Senate, the day started with a moment of silence to remember Iowans who died of COVID-19.

Some Republican lawmakers join ‘Freedom Rally’

A handful of Republican lawmakers spoke at a protest in front of the Iowa Capitol Wednesday organized by Informed Choice Iowa, which opposes mandatory vaccinations.

They said they’re concerned that Iowans’ rights have been violated throughout the pandemic as the governor ordered businesses and houses of worship to close to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“I’m not going to be governed by unsubstantiated health theories,” said Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Birmingham.

He said the virus isn’t killing anybody. As of Wednesday night, the Iowa Department of Public Health was reporting 574 Iowans had died of COVID-19. More than 100,000 Americans have died of the virus.

Shipley went on to mock Democrats for wearing face shields to prevent transmission of the coronavirus while working at the statehouse, calling it “in-group virtue signaling.” University of Iowa public health experts say face shields are more effective than cloth masks for preventing virus spread.

He suggested collaborating with Black Lives Matter and antifa activists to “alter and abolish” institutions that are infringing on citizens’ rights, including the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Dr. Rossana Rosa, an infectious diseases specialist in Des Moines, said she was “appalled and hurt” by Shipley’s words.

“Having witnessed firsthand the loss of life and pain this disease has caused in our communities, it’s incredibly frustrating to see someone in a position of power do anything less than advise people to stay safe and listen to public health authorities,” Dr. Rosa said.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said at the rally he will “not tolerate fundamental rights being denied” in any future emergency.

“As free men and women, we expect our leaders to provide us information and recommendations, not mandates that shut down our liberty, destroy our small businesses, deny our right to worship, and potentially prevent our children from having the future they could’ve had,” Holt said.

University of Iowa public health experts and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds have said the state’s actions to shut down businesses, schools and houses of worship have prevented Iowa’s health care system from being overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. The state is mostly “re-opened” as of June 1.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter