Linn County employees and visitors will be required to wear face masks at county-owned facilities starting Monday, regardless of their vaccination status.
A divided Board of Supervisors passed the mask mandate during a meeting on Friday morning.
The ideological division between supervisors on masks was visible even before the resolution was introduced. Supervisor Stacey Walker and Supervisor Ben Rogers were following CDC guidance and wearing masks; Supervisor Louis Zumbach, the sole Republican on the board, was not.
Zumbach said he felt it would be “premature doing a mask mandate.” He also said he was concerned it would not be possible to enforce a mandate in all cases, since a voter entering a county building to cast a ballot could not be required to wear a mask. The county should add security at its buildings along with any mandate, he asserted, so it wouldn’t fall to county employees to enforce it.
Walker acknowledged Zumbach’s objections, but pointed out that there is currently no voting going on.
“I think we can revisit that when the auditor is available to speak to that,” Walker said.
“That’s something we can address in the next 60 days,” Rogers agreed.
Walker said he would make sure the issue of adding security workers was on the agenda for the next meeting, but wanted to move ahead with the mandate now, since Cedar Rapids had already introduced one for city buildings, and he felt it was important for local government to be in sync to avoid confusion and to send an important message on public health.
“I don’t imagine every staff person here in Linn County will be in agreement with this action, for whatever reason, and I hope that even in their disagreement they understand that I am advocating for this because I want to keep them safe and I want to keep other people safe, and for no other reason,” Walker said.
“This isn’t about politics for me. This isn’t a left or right thing. This is an earnest attempt to listen to medical experts.”
Walker noted that a mandate for masks inside county buildings “is about the only power that’s been left to local government” after the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Reynolds made it illegal for local governments to create mask mandates stricter than whatever the state has in place. “So, I think we ought to use it, because it is in the best interest of the people.”
Zumbach repeated his objection that the mandate was “premature,” and said it is “naïve [to think] that putting your mask on when you get to the door and taking it back off when you leave is doing a whole lot.”
Walker said he understood it might not change the behavior of people when they are not in county buildings, but the mandate would still help protect county employees and others in the buildings from the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
When the board voted, Walker and Rogers voted for the mandate, and Zumbach voted against it.
The measure comes after the latest CDC guidance recommends individuals living in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission of COVID-19 wear a mask in public when indoors, even if they’re vaccinated, due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 Delta variant. Linn County has a “high” level of transmission, according to the CDC.
CDC data shows that fully vaccinated people infected with Delta can spread the virus to others, and breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated individuals, while still quite rare, have increased.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Linn County are increasing, as are hospitalizations, Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi said told the supervisors during the meeting on Wednesday. Dwivedi was joined by Dr. Tony Myers of Mercy Medical Center to provide an update on virus activity.
“The highest spread of cases and severe outcomes is happening in places with low vaccination rates, and virtually all hospitalizations and deaths have been among the unvaccinated,” Dwivedi said.
Mercy and UnityPoint Health are each seeing about one admission every day, Myers said, adding that even with the slight increase the hospitals are in a much better situation than last November.
“Even though I’m confident the hospital and medical system will not get overwhelmed with this surge that we’re having, we could save some lives by people just being smart and wearing masks inside,” Myers said.
Dwivedi and Myers both urged individuals who have not yet received their COVID-19 vaccine to get vaccinated because “anyone who is unvaccinated is at risk for infection.” All three vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. are effective against all currently identified variants.
“Vaccination is the best protection against Delta,” Dwivedi said. “Getting vaccinated prevents severe illness, hospitalization and death. It also helps reduce the spread of the virus in our communities. … With the Delta variant, vaccination is more urgent than ever.”
Slightly more than half of the county’s residents — 53 percent — are fully vaccinated and another 3 percent are partially vaccinated, according to LCPH data.
Linn County buildings will remain open to the public, and there will be disposable face coverings available at each building. Residents can continue to conduct county business online, by phone, email, mail or drop boxes.