Iowa’s Rural/Urban Divide Intensifies On Masks With Little State Guidance

Iowa remains one of six U.S. states without any facial covering requirements as COVID-19 daily cases return to their previous peak in the state. Some local county and municipal leadership is left skeptical of CDC mask-wearing suggestions and others are fearful of stepping over Gov. Kim Reynolds’ public health declaration which does not enforce a mandate.

The Republican governor’s office said Tuesday that they do “not believe a governmental mask mandate is appropriate,” and that they believe local officials cannot legally enforce their own. The remark is consistent with federal mask-wearing suggestions—not orders—despite calls from health care officials and Democratic lawmakers for stricter policies.

The divide surrounding mask mandates has extended to Iowa cities as a number of local officials have proven reluctant to implement orders.

Leaders in some rural, more conservative counties said they are doubtful of facial coverings’ effectiveness while their communities continue to gather for summer festivities. In other more urban counties, officials have attempted to implement mandatory mask policies while risking compliance with Reynolds’ extended health declaration which ruled municipalities’ mandates illegal.

“I don’t know whether they don’t get it or if they just plain don’t care about their fellow citizens,” Julie Goepfert of Fort Dodge said regarding the lack of mask-wearing in her county, which has no current mask orders.

“There’s been so much misinformation out there, they may not get how important [mask-wearing] is, but they may just plain don’t care … I think there’s a lot of people that don’t think this is a real thing. People are still saying, come Election Day, [coronavirus] will disappear.”

What Mask-Wearing Looks Like In Rural Iowa

Knoxville City Councilmember Megan Suhr said that at a recent council meeting the city manager and fire chief noted an uptick in their COVID-19 numbers, but suggested the community stay six feet away from one another, wash their hands and follow CDC guidelines instead of explicitly saying to wear a mask or enforcing any policies.

“The fire chief said, ‘If you’re comfortable wearing a mask, you can,’” she recalled. “That meeting was pretty telling. And the public health department has not been very outright saying to wear a mask … People are not wearing masks. It’s rare. They will twist themselves in knots to not wear one.”

In Marion County, where Knoxville is located, Supervisor Chair Mark Raymie admitted his suspicions with mask-wearing on July 15 while filming a COVID-19 update.

“What about masks? Lots of conversation going back and forth about masks, I’m going to be very blunt, I’m a mask skeptic,” he said. “But I know that for some folks, it provides that extra level of comfort and we’re talking about this in terms of the people going out. If you can’t be comfortable, then wear a mask. It’s ok. We’re a free people to do that.”

The concern that mask policies infringe on individual freedoms is a common talking point for groups of conservatives opposed to facial covering mandates—addressed most recently by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Monday when he begged Fox News viewers to wear masks in public.

“I’m pleading with your viewers. I’m begging you,” Adams said during an appearance on Fox & Friends. “Please understand that we are not trying to take away your freedoms when we say, ‘Wear a face covering.'”

When asking the public to be honest with public health officials if they need to be interviewed for contact tracing purposes, Raymie noted that it wasn’t Iowan’s fault that the virus is affecting them, which is rhetoric similar to that of the President.

“It’s not your fault. This virus did not come from us. Without getting too political, the United States and Iowa did not start this. But we’re having to deal with the fallout from it,” Raymie said.

At the same meeting, Marion County Public Health Director Kim Dorn said acknowledged the “conflicting guidance regarding wearing a mask.”

The CDC said in March it doesn’t recommend people use face masks, but quickly changed its tune—the agency has now long instructed that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Trump and Reynolds have yet to institute facial covering policies, however.

On Thursday, the state announced a new #StepUpMaskUpIA initiative, encouraging (but again not mandating) mask-wearing in public.

Boone City Councilmember Greg Piklapp said mask-wearing is spotty in the central Iowa town—he also cited confusion over mask instructions and guidance as reasons people are weary to wear them.

“I think there are a lot of difficulties at the local level that I’m seeing just in the fact that information is changing so rapidly and the benchmarks are changing so rapidly,” he said, noting a need for local authority to implement potential mandates.

“Under the governor’s proclamation, she has the authority to dictate [mask wearing mandates]. However, as a local elected official, if they do not see the need for it, why is it included in the public health declaration? If she is not going to use the authority, she should delegate it to local leaders that might see the need for it.”

Piklapp said that currently, he would not currently feel comfortable making any facial declarations as he has been kept in the dark about Boone County’s COVID data. He said he’s been emailing the Iowa Department of Public Health requesting more specific information about where hotspots are, as it’s difficult to have conversations about preventative measures if he’s unsure of what the virus looks like in the region. So far, Piklapp has received no answers from the department.

“I’m not going to make any decisions until I have more information,” he said. “My biggest fear is that if Boone County is having a spike maybe outside the city of Boone, then maybe that’s a decision made by the board of supervisors, not the local city council,” he said. “Right now, with the position I’ve got, I know I can’t make that proclamation.”

Former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge said she too has seen little mask-wearing and no mention of local mandates at home in Albia. The southern Iowa town of around 4,000 is also sending children back to school in-person this fall with no mask requirements.

“I am staying in Albia these days and no one wears a mask except my husband and I. No one in stores or on streets. I have not heard any conversation about mandating it either. But as for now, it seems that wearing a mask is not done,” Judge said.

Without widespread voluntary mask-wearing and no mandates, many rural communities have still been gathering for summer festivities.

The Humboldt County town of Livermore held on July 18 their annual large street dance. City Councilmember William Smith, who also owns two businesses in town, spearheaded the event after the council initially canceled the festivities.

“I understand the committee’s concern. Everyone was canceling everything all around. I just thought, come on, we can do something, even on a smaller scale,” Smith told the Humbolt Independent. The event still included a parade, games, a bags tournament and the dance with a band.

In Schaller, Iowa—a city of around 700 in Sac County— the fire department held on July 11 their annual carnival, which included five rides and a band.

“There was at least a Ferris wheel, other festivities. They did their meal inside at the fire station,” Geopfort said.

Thursdays in Pella is another popular community-wide event held in the central Iowa town. The mini-festivals are held downtown each Thursday in June and July. “There are always crowds of people there,” said Suhr, “And nobody is masked.”

Larger Cities Begin To Challenge Governor

More populated areas of Iowa handle mask-wearing and policies differently. In a stunning declaration on Tuesday, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague overrode Gov. Reynolds by ordering city residents to wear face coverings in public as COVID-19 cases rise. Residents can incur fines or charges if they do not wear masks in public.

Pat Garrett, a spokesman for the governor’s office later responded, telling the Press-Citizen that local governments do not have the authority to impose such orders, per a statement from Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.

“Gov. Reynolds encourages Iowans who are interacting with others where social distancing is impossible to wear a mask. But she does not believe a governmental mask mandate is appropriate,” said Garrett.

A similar declaration made by Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson was deemed legally unenforceable by the governor’s office in early June because it did not comply with Reynolds’ declaration. Garrett did not tell Press-Citizen what the state will do if Iowa City tries to enforce the order.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors on Thursday passed a mask resolution that encourages people use facial coverings but without penalties or enforcement.

The board had in their initial resolution a mandate for the use of facial coverings, but County Attorney Janet Lyness said the passage of the language would be unenforceable.

“You could certainly pass something today encouraging people to wear one. I do think there’s probably some value in a statement from any elected official or any board such as the board of supervisors saying people should be wearing masks, its a very important thing,” she said. “I just want to be clear, you do not have the enforcement authority under a resolution such as this.”

Supervisor Pat Heiden said she’d like to pass a recommendation and then work with the Iowa Board of Health to craft an order which has some “teeth to it as far as a misdemeanor” for not wearing a mask.

In Ames, Iowa the city’s Public Information Officer Susan Gwiasda told We Are Iowa before a July City Council meeting that they would not be “mandating mask-wearing,” noting the city’s compliance with Reynolds’ declaration.

“To be clear, the Council will be discussing COVID-19 public health safety, the ability to enforce social distancing as mandated by the Governor’s office, and other pandemic-related items,” Gwiasda told We Are Iowa. “The Ames City Council has no authority to require mask-wearing in public. The Iowa Attorney General has indicated the power to mandate mask-wearing is with the State of Iowa and Iowa Department of Public Health.”

 

by Isabella Murray
Posted 7/23/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

3 Comments on "Iowa’s Rural/Urban Divide Intensifies On Masks With Little State Guidance"

  • Regarding wearing masks: I do not think 3.5 billion citizens of Asian nations are wrong. They have universal mask wearing and very few infections. Smart people.

  • The United States has now reached over 4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19. This is the most of any country in the world. With simple public health directives, countries such as Norway and Slovakia were able to contain the virus. This included wearing a face mask when out in public and limiting the number of people in social gatherings.
    Our elected officials did not have the intelligence or courage to mandate simple solutions such as using a face mask. Then came the political spin from Washington and Des Moines. We need dedicated leaders at this critical time in our history, NOT people who are more concerned with their poll numbers and adding more money to their bank accounts.

  • Too much drama! I’m high risk and wear a mask. If govt and businesses do or don’t choose to invoke a mandatory mask policy I’m okay with that. I’m not going to tell others what to do.

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