COVID-19: Johnson County Board of Health approves a mask mandate; 510 more Iowans test positive

The dog statue at Iowa City’s Thornberry Off-Leash Dog Park dons a face covering in accordance with the city’s mask mandate. July 29, 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

The Johnson County Board of Health unanimously approved an ordinance mandating the use of face coverings in public spaces during its special meeting on Tuesday. The ordinance has been forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for approval at their meeting on Thursday.

Although Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Attorney Tom Miller have asserted that local governments lack the power to mandate face coverings without the permission of the governor, it is the opinion of Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness that an ordinance passed by the Board of Health and approved by the Board of Supervisors would be enforceable under state law.

The mandate applies to people over the age of 2 who are in “any indoor public settings” or in public spaces outside “if keeping six (6) feet away from others is not possible.” The order also applies to people using transportation available to the public, regardless of whether it is a bus or a car service like Uber.

There are certain limited exemptions, including ones for those under the age of 2 and people who have been told by “by a medical, legal, or behavioral health professional not to wear face coverings.”

The ordinance also specifies six places and times that are exempt from the mandate.

A. While traveling in a personal vehiicle alone or with household members

B. While a person is alone or in is in the presence of only household members

C. While exercising at moderate or high intensity e.g. jogging or biking

D. While seated at a bar or food establishment in the process of eating or drinking

E. While obtaining a service that would require temporary removal of the persons face covering

F. When federal or state law prohibits wearing a face covering or requires the removal of the face covering

Before the vote on Tuesday, Board Chair Dr. Peter Wallace opened up the meeting, held via Zoom, to public comment on the ordinance. Five people spoke, three raised concerns and two spoke in support of the ordinance.

“I’m a pastor here in Iowa City, and I’m asking if there has been any consideration given to allow freedom of conscience for houses of worship in how they will apply this?” said Chris Arch, senior pastor of the Good News Bible Church. “One of our concerns is bars and restaurants are being allowed to operate unmasked. And I guess my question is why shouldn’t we also?”

Arch said his church had already taken steps to help prevent the spread of the virus, including having hand sanitizer available and rearranging seating to promote social distancing.

Arch also said he was unsure why the mandate was being issued now, because virus spread in the state is lower now than in the spring when face coverings were not required.

The next speaker, Maureen Greer, said she agreed with Arch, before moving on to her own concerns about requiring people to wear face coverings.

“I would also like you to consider the unnecessary fear and incitement that it is causing people,” Greer said. “It is causing social distress, and we all can look at this with a rationality to see that a little mask is not something that will revolutionize the world.”

“We have more diet-related illnesses that [are] diagnosed every day and no one says anything. We have people smoking at entrances of facilities and no one says anything. I would like you to consider the inconsistencies that we have with this.”

Greer said she was also concerned about face coverings preventing “the recognition of people’s faces.”

“We cannot identify perpetrators, we cannot identify people and menaces of society if they’re always covered with their face [sic], because everyone looks the same,” she said.

Speaking in favor of the mandate, Oaknoll Retirement Residence Administrator Kim Bergen-Jackson pointed to the pandemic’s impact on Oaknoll residents.

“March 8 is the date that we first had positive cases of coronavirus in Iowa, which also happened to be in Johnson County,” she said. “March 8, that’s the day we closed our health center and assisted living to outside visitors, to family members, to loved ones, to our vendors to our volunteers and to our students. We have already asked our residents to postpone seeing their loved ones, going to the mall or the grocery store, or just out for a walk, while Johnson County gets this virus under control. I asked them that on March 8.”

“They have been waiting for 150 days for our governmental officials to flatten the curve. Waiting 22 weeks for Johnson County residents to be Iowa Nice and take care of each other. And I cannot ask them to wait any longer.”

Bergen-Jackson said the pandemic isn’t a “political problem… isn’t a joke or a hoax” and the science supporting the wearing of face coverings was well-established.

“The residents at Oaknoll and older adults in Johnson County matter, they have value and they have voice in our community,” she concluded. “We’re only asking you to wear a piece of fabric on your face to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets.”

Another 510 cases of COVID-19 were reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health during the 24-hour period ending at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, bringing the total number of Iowans who have been confirmed as having the virus to 46,492. The department also reported eight more deaths.

Iowa’s current COVID-19 death toll stands at 893.

According to IDPH, 18 residents of Johnson County tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, as did 31 residents of Linn County. The daily positivity rate for Johnson County on Tuesday was 8.9 percent, and in Linn County it was 11.1 percent.

As of 10 a.m. on Wednesday, IDPH officially considered 34,660 Iowans who have tested positive for the virus to be recovered. The department considers anyone who has tested positive to be recovered after 28 days, unless it is informed otherwise.

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