Iowa House Republicans reject COVID-19 precautions; Iowa ranks last among states in reporting test results

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines — Drew Tarvin

On Tuesday, the Republican majority on the rules committee of the Iowa House of Representatives rejected proposals from Democrats that would have required face masks to be worn in the Iowa Capitol Building and made it possible for lawmakers and members of the public to participate remotely during this year’s legislative session.

Democrats proposed two versions of a mask mandate. The first would have required all lawmakers and member of the public to wear face coverings while in the State Capitol Building. After that was rejected, a mask mandate that would only apply to legislators and others attending meetings in committee rooms was proposed. It was also voted down.

Another proposal would have allowed members of the public to speak at committee hearings via Zoom. Currently, members of the public can leave written comment online regarding bills under consideration in the Iowa House, but to actually address a committee or subcommittee to voice support, concerns or opposition, people must be present in the committee room. The Iowa Senate allows the public to speak at committee meetings via Zoom.

A proposal to allow House members who participate in committee meetings via Zoom to cast votes — under the rules introduced by House Speaker Pat Grassley, members must be present in the committee room to vote — was defeated, as was a change to the amount of time lawmakers have to vote on a bill on the House floor. The change would have increased the amount of time a vote is left open by 10 minutes. Going from a 20-minute window of opportunity to vote to a 30-minute one would allow lawmakers to stagger their presence on the House floor, facilitating social distancing.

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, a Republican from Missouri Valley, said during the meeting that holding votes open for an additional 10 minutes would make the work of the chief clerk of the House “rather laborious” if multiple bills were being voted on.

Meyer pointed out that all the Democratic proposals followed CDC guidelines.

“This is common sense,” he said. “And it’s the right thing to do, not only for us but for employees and people that make their living by being at the Capitol.”

All five proposals were defeated on party-line votes, with all Republicans voting in opposition and all Democrats supporting them.

Committee Chair Cecil Dolecheck, a Republican from Mount Ayr, was the only Republican to address the issue of the mask mandate during the meeting.

“It really shouldn’t be [a point of contention to wear masks],” he said. “I hope everyone wears a mask and does their part to mitigate the spread [of COVID-19].”

Like all the members of the committee, Dolecheck was wearing a mask.

He said he understood why Democrats were proposing a mask mandate, but added the mask mandate was being rejected for “reasons beyond my purview.”

Speaker Grassley said earlier this month there was no way for the House to enforce a mask mandate, so he would not introduce one.

The votes to reject additional pandemic precautions for the House rules came four days after the first case of COVID-19 at the Capitol during this session was reported.

“Today we are letting you know that someone associated with the Iowa House of Representatives has tested positive for COVID-19,” Chief Clerk Meghan Nelson informed House members via email on Friday. “They were last in the building January 13 and tested on January 15, 2021. They were primarily on first and second floor House controlled space. The positive case was wearing a face covering at all times.”

Under current House rules, no one who tests positive for COVID-19 is required to inform others they have tested positive, but they may do so voluntarily.

During the meeting on Tuesday, Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, a Democrat from Windsor Heights, said that not allowing the public to speak to committees virtually or allow lawmakers to vote remotely creates a disincentive for people to report testing positive for COVID-19.

Some audience members chose not to wear a mask during Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State address at the State Capitol, Jan. 12, 2020. — video still/Iowa PBS

“I’m just afraid that we might have created a system in which people won’t feel comfortable doing so because then they won’t be able to vote, they won’t be able to participate in committee, they won’t be able to participate in subcommittee,” she told her fellow lawmakers.

On Wednesday at 10 a.m., the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 1,355 Iowans had tested positive for COVID-19 during the previous 24 hours. The new cases pushed the total number of Iowans who have been confirmed as having the virus since March 8 to 307,568.

The department also reported another 62 deaths from the virus, increasing Iowa’s COVID-19 death toll to 4,394.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Iowa has had the lowest rate of reporting for COVID-19 test results of any state over the last seven days. During that period, IDPH only reported the results of 606 tests per 100,000 residents. The state with the second lowest rate, Idaho, reported the results of 783 tests per 100,000 residents over the last seven days.

In the entire United States, only the territories of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa reported fewer test results per 100,000 residents than Iowa did in the past week.

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