The University of Iowa will not change its policy of encouraging but not requiring mask-wearing on campus, despite the mask mandate issued by Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague on Thursday night. As a state agency it is bound by state law, a UI spokesperson said shortly after the mayor announced the mandate.
On Friday, the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) said in an email to district families “we applaud the City of Iowa City’s efforts to mandate masking,” but it is also bound by state law and won’t require masks in school buildings. The district will continue to encourage mask wearing.
Public schools and UI academic buildings and offices were among the locations listed in the mask mandate as places where people must wear masks under most circumstances. Neither was listed in the Iowa City mask mandate that was in effect from July 2020 to May 2021.
Mayor Teague explained during livestreamed remarks on Thursday evening he was imposing the mask mandate because of the increased spread of COVID-19 in Johnson County. The CDC listed Johnson as one of the 86 Iowa counties experiencing a high rate of virus spread on Thursday. Another 12 counites were listed as having a substantial rate of spread. According to current CDC guidance, everyone should wear face masks when indoors in public settings, regardless of vaccination status. The agency also said everyone in school buildings, whether vaccinated or not, should wear whatever is recommended in the general community based on its level of virus spread.
“The Delta variant has reached our community, and as the number of positive cases continues to grow, we are now also faced with an influx of students arriving in our community from around the world, as well as the beginning of a new school year for our local youth,” Teague said during his remarks on Thursday.
Teague is relying on the home rule powers granted to a mayor under Iowa Code to protect the health and wellbeing of residents in the case of a civil emergency. The mayor declared a civil emergency in Iowa City due to COVID-19 spread, before issuing his mask mandate.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has dismissed the CDC mask guidance as “not grounded in reality or common sense” and claimed in an interview last week “we can find data on both sides of the issue” regarding whether masks are effective at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
There are no credible studies showing masks are ineffective at limiting the spread of COVID-19, despite the governor’s claim.
Reynolds has opposed mask mandates since the beginning of the pandemic. In November, new cases and hospitalizations spiked high enough for the governor to impose a limited statewide mask mandate. (It’s worth noting that Reynolds waited until after the election before implementing the mandate.)
“This isn’t about mandates,” the governor said when she announced her mandate on Nov. 18. “This isn’t about government.” Reynolds went on to explain the reason for her mandate was because if virus spread was not brought under better control, “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.”
After 12 weeks, when virus activity had declined, she lifted the mask mandate.
Responding to Iowa City’s new mask mandate on Thursday night, the governor’s spokesperson said, “It’s against the law and it’s not enforceable. COVID-19 has been around for over a year, Iowans know how to protect themselves and their families.”
The spokesperson was referring to a new law signed by Reynolds in May, which imposes limits on the power of cities, counties and school boards to respond to public health emergencies. Despite what the governor’s spokesperson implied, the new law doesn’t ban all city-level mask mandates, it just prohibits cities from doing anything “that requires the owner of real property to implement a policy relating to the use of facial coverings that is more stringent than a policy imposed by the state.”
Iowa City’s new mandate doesn’t impose any requirements on property owners. Instead, it is aimed at individuals within the city, as Teague explained during a late afternoon news conference on Friday. There are no requirements imposed on businesses or landlords in their capacity as landlords, just people.
“Every person in the City of Iowa City must wear a face covering that covers their nose and mouth when in public places,” the ordinance states, before moving on to specify when and why some people will be exempted from its requirements.
Neither ICCSD nor UI addressed that distinction in their statements on the mask mandate.
“As a State governmental entity and organization that represents five municipalities, we are expected to follow state law and guidance from the Iowa Department of Education,” the school district said in its email to families. “While we continue to strongly encourage masks in schools, per Iowa law and under advisement from legal counsel, we cannot enforce that face coverings are worn in our buildings or on school grounds at this time.”
ICCSD added it plans “to discuss potential legal paths to further protect our students, staff, and families. We have asked for additional assistance and guidance from the United States Department of Education, Department of Justice, and Office of Civil Rights as we attempt to comply with both state and federal laws.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education sent Reynolds a letter warning that Iowa’s new law prohibiting school districts from creating mask mandates may violate federal law. In response, the governor’s office put out a short, written statement.
The statement began by attacking President Biden’s economic policies, as well as his actions on Afghanistan and the U.S./Mexican border, before claiming Biden “is now launching an attack against governors like myself for trusting our people to decide what’s best for them.”
The governor’s four-sentence-long statement does not mention masks or schools.
UI’s response to questions regarding Iowa City’s mask mandate was much briefer than ICCSD’s.
The University of Iowa strongly encourages the use of face masks on campus, especially in all classroom settings and during in-person office hours.
However, as a state agency, we are expected to comply with state law and the guidance of our governing body, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa.
The Board of Regents, which sets policy for the state’s three pubic universities, decided earlier this year not to allow UI, Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa to require mask-wearing or that students, faculty or staff be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Students, faculty and staff at all three universities have been pushing back against the decision by the Regents, and are circulating petitions calling on the board to allow mask and vaccine mandates.
United Faculty, a union representing faculty members at UNI, has gone a step further and filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) claiming the Board of Regents’ actions have created “unsafe working conditions” at the university.
At his news conference on Friday, Teague said he understood the position UI is in, given the Board of Regents policy against requiring masks.
“I respect that position,” the major said. “But I must say that everyone in the city of Iowa City is still required under this mask mandate to wear a mask.”
Teague was asked what sort of enforcement action the city will take if individuals won’t wear masks. The mayor said, “we will go in and educate an individual about the need to wear a mask. We will provide PPE to individuals, and really try to spread the word about all of us being in this together.”
Those sorts of efforts worked during the city’s previous mask mandate, Teague said.
The mandate that went into effect in July 2020 also carried the possibility that someone who violated the mask mandate could be cited and fined. The city, however, never issued any citations during the 10 months that mandate was in effect. According to the mayor, education and persuasion made the mask mandate successful.
The previous mandate did, however, require businesses open to the public to have customers wear masks while on their premises, an option no longer available to any city in Iowa.
Still, Teague said he found the enthusiastic response he’d received to the mask mandate as a sign it can work.
“We have seen an overflow of people reaching out to say thank you for putting a mask mandate in place,” the mayor told reporters gathered at Iowa City Hall for the news conference.
He said he hoped that enthusiasm meant people would not only wear masks themselves, but encourage others to do so.
“I’m hoping people, individuals in the City of Iowa City, will also be engaged in those conversations, to say: ‘Hey friend, let’s put on a mask so that we can really make it through this together.’”