After refusing since March to mandate face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Kim Reynolds reversed her stance on Monday evening and issued a new emergency public health proclamation requiring face masks in public. It is, however, a much more limited mandate than public health experts in Iowa and the White House Coronavirus Task Force have called for.
“Starting tomorrow, when you’re in an indoor public space and unable to social distance for 15 minutes or longer, masks are required to be worn,” the governor said, during televised speech that began at 6:05 p.m. “The same requirements apply to visitors and employees inside state buildings. And I strongly encourage other businesses to follow this lead.”
According to the new proclamation, social distancing means remaining six feet away from anyone who isn’t a member of your household.
Notably, Reynolds did not grant local governments the authority to create their own mask mandate. Both Iowa City and Johnson County have adopted more rigorous mask mandates, although the governor considers local mandates to be invalid under Iowa law. The new mask mandate does not apply to anyone “participating in a service at a spiritual and religious gathering,” the proclamation states. The mask mandate also does not apply to in-person instruction in schools, the governor’s office clarified after her speech.
In the emergency health proclamation she issued last week, the governor had mandated that organizers of events involving more than 25 people indoors or 100 people outdoors require participants to wear face masks. In her latest proclamation, Reynolds imposed size limits on gatherings instead.
“Indoor social, community and business gatherings or events will be limited to 15 people,” the governor explained, as she read her speech. “Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 30. This includes wedding and funeral receptions, family gatherings and conventions. This does not restrict gatherings that occur in the workplace as part of normal daily business or government operations.”
“Spiritual and religious gatherings” are also exempt from the size restrictions, according to the proclamation.
All organized youth and adult sports are suspended, according to the proclamation. But there are significant exemptions in this new measure as well. High school, collegiate and professional sports may continue, although the restriction of two spectators per athlete for high school sports announced last week remain in effect. The spectators at those high school sports will be required to wear face masks.
The governor is imposing new limits on the operating hours of restaurants and bars. Starting at midnight, all restaurants and bars must be closed between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Take-out orders, drive-through service and deliveries are still permitted after 10 p.m.
Customers in bars and restaurants must wear face masks “unless seated at a properly distanced booth or table,” according to the proclamation. Employees “who interact with customers” must wear face masks.
The governor began her speech by acknowledging “the pandemic in Iowa is worse than it has ever been.”
“Over the last two weeks there have been more than 52,000 cases of the virus in Iowa,” Reynolds said. “And to put that into perspective, we had the same number of cases from the beginning of the pandemic in March to mid-August.”
At 10 a.m. on Monday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported that a total of 187,020 had tested positive for the virus, including 8,251 residents of Johnson County and 11,650 residents of Linn County. The department also reported 1,991 Iowans had died from COVID-19.
During her new conference last Thursday, Reynolds complained that “Recent news coverage has warned Iowans that hospital beds in some areas are full, suggesting that people may not be able to receive care.” The governor pushed back saying, “My team and DPH is [sic] in regular contact with health systems and hospital leaders, and they assure the team and me that that is not the case.”
But during her speech on Monday night, Reynolds said “because of the increase we’ve seen over the past two weeks, our healthcare system is being pushed to the brink.”
“The number of Iowans in the hospital has doubled, to the point where one out of every four hospitalized patients has the virus,” she added.
Reynolds warned that the increasing number of COVID-19 patients are limiting other services hospitals can provide. In the new proclamation, the governor imposes a new restriction on hospitals, requiring them to reduce elective procedures by 50 percent.
“No one wants to do this,” the governor said about the newly mandated mitigation steps in her proclamation. “I don’t what to do this, especially as we are coming into a holiday season that is normally filled with joy.”
Infectious disease experts have warned that family gatherings over Thanksgiving are likely to create circumstances in which COVID-19 is readily transmitted. And as the winter weather begins, people will be spending more time inside where the virus spreads more easily.
The immediate reaction to Reynolds’ speech from a University of Iowa expert on infectious diseases highlighted how limited the new mitigation steps are.
“Before I close, let me make one thing clear,” Reynolds said on Monday night. “This isn’t about mandates, this isn’t about government, there isn’t enough law enforcement in the country to make sure that every Iowan is wearing a mask when they should. There aren’t enough sheriffs in Iowa’s 99 counties to shut down every noncompliant bar.”
“If Iowans don’t buy into this, we lose.”
It’s an awkward argument for the governor to make. On April 22, when Reynolds began to remove restrictions on businesses and public gatherings slightly more than a month before, she said, “The reality is we can’t stop the virus. It will remain in our communities until a vaccine is available. Instead, we must learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives.”
The governor has repeated that message over the subsequent months. She has also been silent as President Trump misinformed the public about COVID-19 and attacked mitigation efforts as politically motived attempts to make him look bad. Throughout October as the current surge in new cases built, Reynolds also frequently appeared at campaign rallies for Republican candidates where few people wore masks or attempted to social distance, and she never admonished the crowds for not taking basic precautions.
But on Monday night, Reynolds, sounding much more solemn than she typically does during news conferences, emphasized that failing to gain control of the pandemic in the next two weeks will have severe consequences.
“Businesses will close once again. More schools will be forced to go online and our healthcare system will fail and the cost in human life will be high.”