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Johnson County lifts its mask mandate, will fully reopen buildings to the public


Jason Smith/Little Village

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Thursday to lift the county’s mask mandate. The mandate officially ends on Monday, May 31, following the publication of a public notice in “a newspaper of record.”

“Today’s just the culmination of a lot of what is happening,” Supervisor Rod Sullivan said before the board voted at its May 27 meeting. Board members had been having ongoing discussions with members of the Johnson County Board of Health, as well as the county’s health department, about COVID-19 mitigation efforts and mask wearing.

The Johnson County Board of Health rescinded the mask mandate ordinance it approved on Aug. 4, during a special meeting on Wednesday, clearing the way for the supervisors to take action the following day.

The Board of Health cited the latest guidance from the CDC, but still encouraged unvaccinated people to wear face coverings, since they still are at serious risk of contracting and transmitting the virus, if they are exposed to it.

The Board of Supervisors enacted a mask mandate in Johnson County on Aug. 6, after members spent months asking Gov. Reynolds to either create a statewide mask mandate to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect the lives of vulnerable Iowans, or issue an executive order allowing local governments to do so. The governor refused, and after the mayors of cities such as Iowa City began issuing mask mandates, based their authority in state code to take actions to safeguard citizen during emergencies, she asserts no local government had the authority to create its own mandate.

After reviewing the relevant state laws, County Attorney Janet Lyness determined supervisors could create a mandate, if the ordinance requiring mask-wearing passed the county’s board of health. With the governor refusing to act, both boards passed the ordinance in August.

Even before the boards acted to rescind the mandate, it had likely been rendered null and void by a new state law. In the final days of the 2021 legislative session, Republican leaders pushed through a bill, HF 487, that strips local governments of their authority to have any face mask mandate stricter than that enacted by the state government — in other words, no mask mandate, and it applies to any health situation, not just COVID-19. HF 487 also forbid schools from requiring mask use by students, staff or visitors, even though many older students haven’t been vaccinated and none of the younger ones have. The bill also allows the state to punish any private business — except healthcare facilities — that requires customers to wear face mask as a mitigation effort.

Normally, a new law like the one created by HF 487 wouldn’t take effect until July 1, when the state begins a new fiscal year, but Reynolds insisted lawmakers include a provision making the law take effect as soon as she signed it. The governor signed HF 487 in the early hours of May 20, surrounded by supporters, including people known to spread anti-vaccine conspiracies online.

In addition to eliminating the mask mandate, Johnson County also announced on Thursday that county buildings will fully reopen to the public starting on Tuesday, June 1. County building were closed to the public on March 18, 2020, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. The buildings partially reopened two and a half months later on June 8, although an appointment was required to enter most facilities.

During the time the buildings were closed to the public, county department offered services to the public remotely, and that option will still be available.

“Johnson County will continue to offer remote services via phone, email, and online,” the county said in a news release. “Dropboxes will remain in place for anyone who needs to drop off paperwork that would normally be presented in person. Residents are encouraged to take advantage of these alternative service options.”

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