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Iowa Public Health Association 'Gravely Concerned' About Lack Of Mask Wearing At Statehouse

Charlie Neibergall
Members in the Iowa House take the oath of office during the opening day of the Iowa Legislature on Monday.

The Iowa Public Health Association sent a letter to all state lawmakers Thursday asking them to require and wear masks at the Iowa Capitol to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The legislative session began Monday with hundreds of people gathering in the building, and Republican leaders did not issue a mask mandate for the Statehouse.

The letter says the IPHA is, “gravely concerned about events at the Capitol contributing to the spread of the pandemic and ask for your leadership in setting the tone that while free speech will not be suppressed, public health precautions must be taken.”

While Republican leaders say they are encouraging their members to wear masks when they can’t social distance, some visitors and Republican lawmakers have not been wearing masks, and there was a large crowd of unmasked protesters at the Iowa Capitol Monday protesting mask mandates. A few Republican lawmakers spoke at the event.

IPHA Executive Director Lina Tucker Reinders said that her association has been calling for a statewide mask mandate since July. And she said Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ limited mask mandate that’s been in place since mid-November should apply to the Iowa Capitol.

“The spread of the virus does not stop because of your position in work or society or anything else,” Tucker Reinders said. “And whenever we see people gather without a mask on, without social distancing, we know that they’re at risk. That is a public health concern.”

Reynolds has said she doesn’t get to decide how the legislature, a separate branch of government, conducts its business.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, has claimed he can’t enforce a mask mandate.

Charlie Neibergall
Brei Johnson speaks as protestors gather in the Iowa Capitol rotunda to voice their opposition to mask mandates on Monday.

“The Speaker has been very clear, to the press, to the public and to the members of his caucus, that he is strongly encouraging members to wear a mask when they are unable to practice social distancing,” said Melissa Deatsch, spokesperson for the Iowa House Republicans.

But Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, pushed back on the claim that it can’t be enforced.

“Your lame reasoning about not being able to require legislators to wear masks is a joke,” Bolkcom said, as reported by Radio Iowa. “I’m mandated to wear this tie and this jacket to be able to stand at this microphone and speak.”

A spokesperson for the Iowa Senate Republicans did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

State lawmakers have been moved to the 1b phase of Iowa’s vaccination plan, which state officials say should begin by Feb. 1. But that still means lawmakers will have been working at the Statehouse for several weeks before they get the full protective effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.

House Democratic leaders also criticized Republicans for the poor audio quality of the livestreamed committee and subcommittee meetings, which are being held in person, and for not reading comments submitted online out loud.

“Iowans need more opportunity to give their feedback and share and use their constitutionally protected right to petition their government,” said House Minority Whip Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights. “They don’t have as many options. They shouldn’t have to choose between their health or their ability to contact their legislators and have input in the legislative process.”

Deatsch said the opportunities for online participation make subcommittees more accessible than they were before to people in other parts of the state.

“Quite frankly, the accusations from Democrats of a lack of transparency or a lack of public input is ridiculous,” Deatsch said. “In the House, the public is able to attend subcommittee meetings on a first-come-first-serve basis so that we can better maintain social distancing and the meetings are livestreamed for anyone to watch.”

The Iowa Senate is holding subcommittees on Zoom.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter