The Linn County Board of Supervisors is revisiting issuing a mask mandate after recent spikes of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county and a surge in hospitalizations.
The three supervisors first discussed a face-covering resolution in late July after Iowa City and Johnson County issued their respective mandates that required individuals to wear face coverings in public. The Linn County supervisors didn’t want to pass a mandate that was unenforceable, so they decided to go a different route.
The three supervisors, along with the county’s Board of Health, approved a proclamation on Aug. 5 that called on Gov. Kim Reynolds to allow cities and counties to “to enact localized response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” including mandating and enforcing the use of face coverings. The proclamation was backed by 11 mayors in the county, including Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart. Hart issued a face-covering mandate for the city in early September.
Supervisor Ben Rogers said during Monday’s meeting that he put the topic of issuing a mandate back on the agenda in response to the “uptick in COVID cases.”
“When we discussed this back in the summer, that was a different time,” Rogers said. “It was obviously warm out. People had more options to be outside or socially distanced. That is now narrowing given the weather. The fact that the holidays are coming around. The fact that we’re seeing a real surge in cases. Hospitals are worried. Public health is worried. I think this board is concerned.”
Rogers brought up last Friday’s Linn County Public Health news conference where health officials warned that if the county’s rate of hospitalizations continues to rise it will be at an “unsustainable level.” LCPH’s Clinical Services Supervisor Heather Meador also shared that 735 cases of COVID-19 were reported during the week of Oct. 25.
But the week wasn’t over yet since the news conference was on Friday, Oct. 30. There were actually 1,176 cases of COVID-19 reported once the week concluded on Saturday, Oct. 31, according to LCPH’s numbers.
Linn County has 6,760 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of noon on Monday, according to LCPH. A total of 4,443 individuals have recovered, and 141 residents have died.
Any face-covering resolution passed by the supervisors would only apply to unincorporated, rural parts of the county and would not be enforceable. The county can’t issue mandates in cities that have their own city councils.
“I would rather look back on this and say ‘we tried everything’ even if maybe its effect was negligible,” Rogers said, adding that the state of the pandemic in the county is “getting absolutely worse — not better.”
Lisa Epp of the Linn County Attorney’s Office provided more information about issuing a mask mandate with the help of the county’s Board of Health, which is how Johnson County went about issuing its mask mandate.
“Under Iowa Chapter 137, local boards of health are allowed to make regulations for the protection of public health … so long as it doesn’t interfere with state public health office, and an argument can be made that although the state public health office has not issued an order to wear masks in public, they have not forbidden one either,” Epp said during the meeting.
The Board of Health would have to convene a meeting and give enough notice to residents in case individuals wanted to speak during the public comment period. If the Board of Health approves the resolution, it would then go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Epp said the process could be done within two and a half weeks.
Both Reynolds and Attorney General Tom Miller have said cities are not permitted to create face-covering mandates because the governor’s public health emergency proclamation does not impose such a requirement or explicitly empower cities to do so.
Throughout the pandemic, Reynolds has repeatedly said she trusts Iowans to make their own choices of whether or not to wear a mask. When the state was experiencing an increase in cases in late August, Reynolds was asked if she plans to issue a statewide mandate. Her response was: “Oh no, I’m not doing that. I think I’ve made it very clear. Nope, not going to happen. It’s just not going to happen.”
Supervisor Brent Oleson said he supports and encourages mask-wearing but has been resistant to support a mask mandate due to the question of authority. He said on Monday that he’s changing his mind “because Governor Kim Reynolds has been an abject failure in her response to the COVID-19 pandemic for the citizens of Iowa.”
“It’s clear that it’s become a political issue, for whatever reason, about mask-wearing, and I’m over it,” Oleson said, adding that he would support a resolution if it comes before the board.