The Linn County Board of Health unanimously approved a regulation on Monday that requires individuals in the county to wear a face covering when out in public.
The Board of Health’s approval came just hours before Gov. Kim Reynolds announced a new emergency public health proclamation that included a limited statewide mask mandate.
Various jurisdictions across the state — including Iowa City and Johnson County — have passed their own mandates in recent months requiring face coverings in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Reynolds did not grant local governments authority to create their own mask mandates nor does her mandate go as far as what local governments are requiring for their residents.
The regulation passed by the Linn County Board of Health must be ratified by the Board of Supervisors before it is in effect, which could happen as early as next week.
Linn County’s regulation follows similar language that Johnson County used for their mandate and goes beyond what the governor is asking of Iowans.
If approved by the supervisors, the regulation would require residents and individuals visiting Linn County to wear face coverings in public when social distancing is not possible. Face coverings would also be required in all indoor public settings, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, retail stores and schools.
There are various exemptions to the regulation, including when traveling in a vehicle alone, exercising, eating or drinking at a food establishment or obtaining a service that requires temporary removal of the face covering. Also exempted from the regulation are children under the age of 2 or anyone who has been told by a medical professional not to wear a face covering.
Not complying with the regulation could result in a fine for a simple misdemeanor for the first and subsequent offenses.
The Linn County Board of Supervisors first discussed a face-covering resolution in late July and revisited issuing a face-covering mandate earlier this month in light of recent spikes of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county and a surge in hospitalizations.
“Linn County, which is again, one of the worst counties in the state of Iowa. Iowa is one of the worst states in the country, and the United States is one of the worst countries on the planet in terms of the coronavirus,” Board of Health member and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said on Monday.
“We’ve got to do something to try to keep individuals in this community safe.”
As of 11 a.m. on Monday, Linn County Public Health was reporting 11,665 confirmed cases of the virus in the county and 159 deaths. Cases in the month of November alone make up more than 40 percent of the county’s total cases.
Last week, the New York Times listed Cedar Rapids as the number one place where cases are rising faster than any other metro area in the country. On Monday, Cedar Rapids was number five on the list.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended the use of face coverings in early April to slow the spread of the virus.
Various research studies and public health experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci — have backed the effectiveness of mask use, when worn correctly.
“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in July. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”
Despite the proven effectiveness of face coverings, many individuals continue to push back on wearing them, saying mask requirements attack individual freedom. Similar sentiments were shared during the Board of Health’s public hearing.
The board received 130 emails and phone calls about the proposed mask mandate. It was not specified how many were in favor or against the mandate, but nearly everyone at the public hearing spoke against requiring people to wear face coverings. About 20 people spoke at the public hearing, either virtually or in person.
Some of the speakers incorrectly claimed wearing a mask “does nothing to slow the spread of the virus.” Some advocated letting COVID-19 spread, saying it needs to “run its course” and county residents should just try “to live with the virus.”
Gov. Reynolds has made similar comments about how Iowans need to “learn to live with COVID virus activity without letting it govern our lives” during her news conferences throughout the pandemic, but took a more serious tone on Monday during her televised speech.
“Before I close, let me make one thing clear,” Reynolds said during her televised speech on Monday night, when she announced her limited mask mandate. “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.”
Before the board’s vote, Dr. Mary Tarbox said that wearing a mask is a “minor expectation” and reminded individuals to consider the overall impact the pandemic has had on nurses and hospitals. (Tarbox chairs the board and is also the chair of the Department of Nursing at Mount Mercy University.)
Board vice-chair Leslie Wright said the state’s healthcare system is “in a critical state right now.” The Iowa Department of Public Health was reporting 1,392 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, 271 of whom were being treated in intensive care units, on Monday morning. Both were new record highs for the state.
Recent stories by ProPublica and the Atlantic have also featured the unprecedented burden that is being placed on Iowa’s healthcare system.
“The wave hasn’t even crashed down on us yet,” University of Iowa infectious-disease doctor Eli Perencevich told the Atlantic’s Ed Yong. “It keeps rising and rising, and we’re all running on fear. The health-care system in Iowa is going to collapse, no question.”