Inspectors find inadequate COVID-19 protection and other safety issues at the Iowa Capitol

Two signs greet visitors to the State Capitol in Des Moines ahead of the security checkpoint: one explaining the Capitol’s concealed-carry regulations, and another recommending (but not requiring) social distancing. March 30, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

An inspection by the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Agency (IOSHA) found that working conditions in the Iowa State Capitol Building were putting people at unnecessary risk of exposure to COVID-19, according to a “Hazard Alert Letter” the agency issued to the Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature who control the building. But working conditions that put people at unnecessary risk of exposure to COVID-19 don’t violate any laws or regulations in Iowa, so all IOSHA could do was issue the letter.

Before the current session of the Legislature began in January, Speaker of the House Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver issued mitigation rules for COVID-19. The regulations the Republican leaders created apply to the public, not lawmakers or staff.

Members of the public must have their temperature checked and answer health screening questions when entering the building. Legislators and staff are exempt.

There is no mask mandate in the Capitol, despite requests from Democratic lawmakers, groups representing building workers and public health experts such as the Iowa Public Health Association.

According to Grassley and Whitver, it would be impossible to enforce a mask mandate. Both the House and the Senate, however, continue to enforce the dress codes, which, for example, require men in the House chamber to wear a tie and a jacket in the Senate chamber.

In February, Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, a Democrat from Ames, wore jeans on the floor of the House in violation of its dress code, in order to draw attention to the fact House leadership was willing to impose fashion requirements but not ones to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines — Drew Tarvin

“I told the chief clerk, ‘Jeans aren’t hurting anybody but all the people wandering around without masks on, they are,’” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

She repeatedly tried to speak during a debate in the House, but Grassley refused to recognize Wessel-Kroeschell because she was wearing jeans.

At least 10 people associated with either the House or the Senate have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the session in January. Whether those 10 cases are the only ones in the Iowa Capitol is impossible to say, because no one is required to disclose a positive test or if they have been exposed to the virus.

In its letter to Grassley and Whitver on Monday, IOSHA cited four points of concern regarding the failure to take action to mitigate virus spread at the Capitol.

• Social distancing between individuals is not always practiced and not enforced.

• Temperature checks and health screens are not being performed on all persons entering the Capitol Building.

• Employees are not required to report COVID-19 positive test results to leadership.

• No determination of work-relatedness for COVID-19 positive cases reported.

“IOSHA recommends that you review your safety and health practices at your workplace to ensure consistency with Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations and compliance with applicable OSHA standard,” the letter said.

Neither the Legislative leadership nor Gov. Reynolds are adhering to CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19. The governor did impose a limited mask mandate for public spaces in mid-November during the height of the fall’s COVID-19 surge in Iowa, but lifted it at the beginning of February. (It’s worth noting that Reynolds did not consult with the Iowa Department of Public Health prior to lifting the limited mask mandate or eliminating other mitigation efforts on Feb. 5.)

The governor’s limited mask mandate did not apply to the Iowa Capitol Building.

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Whitver issued a statement dismissing the Hazard Alert Letter.

“The report noted it was possible to contract the coronavirus in the Capitol,” he said. “This fact, of course, is also true of nearly any other activity in the world.”

A spokesperson for Grassley called the assessment by IOSHA the result of a “politically contrived investigation.”

Although IOSHA couldn’t take any steps regrading COVID-19 beyond encouraging leaders of the Legislature to follow CDC guidance, it did take action on violations it found while doing its inspection of the Iowa Capitol.

Inspectors observed an electrical outlet box without a faceplate and with exposed wiring, which could result in someone receiving a shock or burn. That was considered the most serious violation, and IOSHA assessed an $8,525 fine for it.

The agency also found chemical containers that were either unlabeled or mislabeled, and determined that paperwork for hazardous chemicals and workplace injuries was missing. These violations carry two fines of $957 each.

The IOSHA inspection of the Iowa Capitol on Jan. 26 that resulted in both the letter regarding COVID-19 mitigation failures and the fines for workplace safety violations was done in response “to a complaint filed by an employee representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Iowa Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO),” the Hazard Alert Letter explained.

Hand sanitizer stations like this one are scattered throughout the State Capitol Building in Des Moines, but there are no face covering requirements in the building. Visitors have their temperature checked via a wrist thermometer by security officers near the public entrance. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO President Charlie Wishman said the IOSHA inspection highlighted serious issues regarding health and safety at the Iowa Capitol.

“They’re not keeping track of who gets sick or anything like that,” he said. “So in the context of COVID that makes it really hard to be able to do any kind of contact tracing or anything like that to actually help stop the spread if a spread is going on.”