Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court Susan Christensen issued a face mask requirement for all of Iowa’s courthouses on Friday afternoon, which requires everyone entering a courthouse to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status.
“This requirement applies statewide and does not depend on a particular county’s or area’s positivity rate or transmission status,” the order states.
Christensen wrote “the supreme court has reviewed the recent revisions to the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding mask wearing in public indoor settings,” prior to issuing the order.
Current guidance from the CDC calls for face masks to be worn by everyone, vaccinated or not, in indoor public settings if an area is experiencing high or substantial spread of COVID-19. Everyone in school buildings, students and adults, should wear masks, regardless of the local rate of virus spread, in order to help protect children under 12 and others who cannot be vaccinated, according to the CDC.
The latest version of the CDC county-level COVID-19 tracking tool lists 97 of Iowa’s 99 counties as having a high rate of virus spread. One county, Hancock, is listed as having a substantial rate of spread, and one, Adair, is in the moderate spread category.
“Judges, in their discretion, may permit the removal of face coverings by participants or take other measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in court proceedings,” the order states.
Some local governments — including Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Coralville and North Liberty, as well as Johnson and Linn counties — have created mask mandates for their municipal buildings, in response to the surge in new COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. State government buildings have no mask requirements, because of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ opposition to mask mandates, but courthouses are under the jurisdiction of the judicial branch.
Reynolds also signed a bill into law in May that prohibits local governments from requiring property owners to enforce mask mandates more extensive that whatever the state government requires — which currently is nothing — and strips schools and school boards of their ability to require masks in school buildings.
Last week, Frances Parr of Council Bluffs, who has two children under the age of 12 in public schools, filed a lawsuit against Reynolds, Iowa Department of Education (IDOE) Director Ann Lebo and interim IDPH Director Kelly Garcia. (Garcia is also the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. Despite the pandemic, Iowa has not had a full-time IDPH director since July 31, 2020.)
Parr is asking a judge to order “the Defendants to issue a Universal Mask Mandate… for all students and School Personnel in Iowa or in the alterative, issue a Mask Mandate for all students and school personnel until a voluntary mask plan can be implemented in each school that allows students who choose to wear masks [be separated from those who don’t wear masks]… as a safety plan to prevent the spread of the Covid 19 virus and the Delta Variant.”
A hearing has not yet been scheduled on the lawsuit, but because of Christensen’s order, participants in the hearing — including the lawyers arguing that safety concerns over COVID-19 in K-12 schools, and the proven effectiveness of masks in limited virus spread, do not outweigh the governor’s authority — will have to wear masks.
This not the first time during the pandemic that Christensen has taken mitigation steps Reynolds was not willing to take. On March 14, six days after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Iowa, Christensen issued an order suspending all jury trials not yet underway in order to limit the spread of the virus. That same day, Reynolds said at a news conference, “We are confident we now have community spread in our state,” but reiterated her position that it was too soon for the state to take actions beyond encouraging people to wash their hands, engage in social distancing and stay home if ill.
Christensen was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court by Reynolds in August 2018. She was elected chief justice by the other members of the court in February 2020, following the death of Chief Justice Mark Cady.