Gov. Kim Reynolds announced on Thursday her administration will officially stop taking any action that treats “COVID-19 as a public health emergency” at 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15. That is when the extension of the state’s Public Health Disaster Emergency Proclamation the governor signed before her announcement expires. The proclamation was first issued on March 17, 2020, as community spread of COVID-19 began to accelerate.
“We cannot continue to suspend duly enacted laws and treat COVID-19 as a public health emergency indefinitely,” Reynolds said in a written statement issued by her office. “After two years, it’s no longer feasible or necessary.”
There were only a few laws or regulations still suspended by the proclamation, almost all of which involve easing regulations on some businesses (such as suspending the requirement for healthcare facilities to conduct criminal background checks on job candidates before hiring them) and exempting state agencies from following normal procurement practices if the agency finds it necessary while buying supplies related to the pandemic.
The original March 17, 2020 proclamation was broader, and most notably closed restaurants, bars, theaters and fitness centers as part of its mitigation measures. Those mandated closures soon expanded to cover most retail businesses, and limitations were placed on elective procedures in clinics and hospitals to help conserve medical supplies. (Reynolds also tried to use the suspension of elective procedures to ban abortion in the state, but backed off when the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit.)
The governor began lifting those earlier COVID restrictions in just a matter of weeks. On April 24, 2020, Reynolds eliminated the limitations on healthcare facilities. Three days later, she announced closed businesses in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties would be able to reopen. By May 28 that year, almost all state-imposed COVID restrictions on businesses had been lifted, and local governments were prevented from creating their own restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.
“Our recovery is contingent upon our ability to protect both the lives and livelihoods of Iowans,” Reynolds said at a news conference when she announced the May 28 elimination of restrictions. “We can’t prioritize one over the other, we must prioritize both to move forward.”
When the governor made that statement, the Iowa Department of Public Health was reporting a total of 464 Iowans had died of COVID-19. In its update published this week, the department said Iowa’s official COVID-19 death toll had risen to 8,657.
As virus spread continued to build throughout the summer of 2020, the governor kept repeating she believed Iowans “know best” how to care for themselves and their families during a pandemic and Iowans will “do the right thing,” so there was no need for further state action. By Aug. 17, COVID-19 levels had risen high enough for the governor to order all bars and other establishments that primarily sell liquor to close in six counties – Johnson, Linn, Polk, Story, Dallas and Black Hawk. Those restrictions would be lifted in four of the counties three weeks later, and in the remaining two counties, Johnson and Story, all the bars and other establishments were allowed to reopen on Oct. 5.
At the time, the governor touted those closures as an example of the sort of carefully targeted approach to mitigation she favored: temporarily closing certain places where the public gather in areas experiencing high spread of the virus, and then allowing them to reopen after case numbers drop. But October was also the month that an unprecedented COVID-19 surge began in Iowa, and the governor declined to take any action.
Reynolds was busy campaigning for Republican candidates throughout October, and the pace of her campaign appearances picked up as the Nov. 3 general election approached. She stopped holding her regular news conferences, and generally avoided all but the friendliest members of the media.
One week after the election, Reynolds introduced face mask requirements for gatherings of “more than 25 people indoors or 100 people outdoors” and for customers and workers “at salons, barbershops, massage therapy establishments, tattoo establishments, tanning facilities, and other establishments providing personal services.” It was the first time Reynolds, a vocal opponent of mask mandates since the beginning of the pandemic, had issued any face covering requirement.
Six days later, with new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continuing to spike, the governor acknowledged in a televised speech that “the pandemic in Iowa is worse than it has ever been” and reintroduced some size limitations on gatherings and imposed a limited mask mandate that applied to almost all indoor public spaces in the state.
The size restrictions on gatherings and the limited mask mandate were lifted on Feb. 5, 2021. In response to questions from Democratic members of the Iowa Legislature, interim IDPH Director Kelly Garcia revealed Reynolds had not consulted with the department before eliminating those regulations.
Since then, the governor has not introduced any new public mandates or business regulations related to COVID-19. She has, however, backed bills stripping local governments and school boards of the ability to take action to mitigate virus spread, and joined other Republican governors in suing the Biden administration to overturn federal COVID-19 mask, vaccination and testing mandates.
Iowa’s state government has been one of the least active in the country in terms of taking action to mitigate virus spread. Writing in the Des Moines Register in October, Dr. James Merchant, who was the founding dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, estimated that approximately two out of five COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented if Iowa had enacted the same mitigation measures as Minnesota. A year earlier in October 2020, the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force warned the state that Iowa’s failure to implement basic COVID-19 precautions was causing “many preventable deaths.”
In the written statement issued on Thursday, Reynolds offered an explanation for no longer treating the pandemic as a public health emergency.
“The flu and other infectious illnesses are part of our everyday lives, and coronavirus can be managed similarly. State agencies will now manage COVID-19 as part of normal daily business, and reallocate resources that have been solely dedicated to the response effort to serve other important needs for Iowans.”
The flu comparison extends to how IDPH will publicly report COVID-19 data starting on Feb. 16. The state’s two websites dedicated to COVID-19 – coronavirus.iowa.gov and vaccinateiowa.gov – “will be decommissioned,” the governor’s office explained. Instead, “IDPH will report relevant COVID-19 information weekly on its website, similar to how flu activity is reported.”
On the Iowa Flu Reports page of its website, IDPH publishes links to PDFs of weekly summaries of flu activity in the state. Those summaries are more limited than COVID-19 information currently published, although the governor’s office the COVID-19 updates would be more extensive. The flu reports are also less timely. Currently, the most recent flu report is for the week that ended Jan. 22. But that report shows why comparing COVID-19 to the flu is inadequate.
For the week ending Jan. 22, there were 421 newly confirmed cases of the flu in Iowa, six flu patients were hospitalized and three “influenza-related deaths” had been reported. In its weekly update on Wednesday, IDPH reported 22,730 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, 794 hospitalized patients and 156 more deaths from the virus.
The governor is discontinuing the Public Health Disaster Emergency Proclamation even though the rate of new cases, hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths in the state are all at levels not seen since the surge of late 2020.
Based on her public statements throughout the pandemic, and her almost certain decision to run for reelection this year, Reynolds is unlikely to issue a new proclamation, regardless of the level of virus spread in the state.