‘Absolutely mind-boggling’: Gov. Reynolds didn’t ask for the IDPH’s opinion before eliminating statewide mask mandate

Gov. Kim Reynolds arrives to her Aug. 20 press conference. — video still

Gov. Kim Reynolds did not consult with the Iowa Department of Public Health before eliminating the limited statewide mask mandate that had been in place since mid-November, according to state Sen. Claire Celsi.

The Des Moines Democrat tweeted on Monday that she “listened in on a phone call” between interim Iowa Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia and Democrats in the legislature, during which Garcia said “the Governor made the decision to rescind the mask mandate and did not ask IDPHs opinion on the matter.”

Dubuque Democrat Rep. Lindsay James, the assistant minority leader in the Iowa House, was also on the call, Celsi confirmed.

“It took my breath away for a moment,” James said, after the IDPH briefing call with Democratic lawmakers. “It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that the governor didn’t consult her own public health experts when making such a major public health decision for our state. This is not a small decision; this is a major decision.”

Reynolds eliminated the limited mask mandate in the emergency health proclamation she issued late Friday afternoon. The governor also eliminated restrictions on the size of gatherings, and the requirement for restaurants and bars to provide six feet of distance between groups.

The governor’s office and IDPH responded to questions from reporters with a general statement that did not directly address what Garcia told lawmakers on Monday.

“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic and is following through with her commitment to dial back restrictions based on a significant decrease in COVID hospitalizations,” a Reynolds’ spokesperson said.

IDPH was equally vague and evasive in its reply: “IDPH advises the Governor daily on the state’s COVID-19 response. As the Governor has done from the beginning of this pandemic, she has adjusted the mitigation efforts based on the availability of healthcare resources.”

Garcia has not publicly commented yet.

Although Celsi referred to Garcia as “IDPH director,” Garcia is only the interim director. She is serving in that capacity in addition to her fulltime position as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. IDPH has not had a full-time director since the end of July, when former director Gerd Clabaugh retired.

Clabaugh’s retirement was announced on June 16, and on June 30, Reynolds said she was appointing Garcia as interim director.

The governor’s inaction when it comes to providing a full-time replacement for Clabaugh, despite the ongoing pandemic, contrasts strongly with how she handled the retirement of Iowa Department of Management Director Dave Roederer.

Roederer retired on Jan. 31, and Reynolds announced his replacement the following day.

The elimination of the limited statewide mask mandate does not affect local mask mandates in Iowa City, Johnson County and Linn County. Both counties have ordinances that require, with certain limited exceptions, anyone inside a building open to the public to wear a face covering when other people are present. People in public outdoor spaces will also be required to have a covering for their noses and mouths in situations where six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained.

Iowa City’s mask mandate goes further than the county mandates, and also has provisions applying to businesses.

“No business open to the public may provide service to a customer or allow a customer to enter without the customer wearing a face covering,” the ordinance states. “Businesses must post signs at the entrance of their business to instruct customers of the legal obligation to wear face covering.”

Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller maintain that local governments lack the authority to issue mask mandates, unless the governor specifically delegates such authority to them.

The emergency health proclamation issued by Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague on July 21 laid out the statutory authority the city is relying on. In addition to citing sections of the Iowa Code that permit a mayor to “govern a city by proclamation” if it is determined a “time of emergency or public danger exists,” the proclamation also cites Iowa Supreme Court cases on city powers, including the court’s 1990 decision in the case of City of Des Moines v. Gruen.

Both counties relied on the authority of their boards of health to issue public health ordinances that become enforceable after they are approved by the board of supervisors. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved its ordinance on Aug. 6. Linn County’s Board of Supervisors did so on Nov. 18.

On his first full day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies to “immediately take action” to require face masks on federal property and on all forms of public transportation.

“The day we’re inaugurated, I’m going to ask you to mask up for the next 100 days,” Biden said in a speech the week before his Jan. 20 swearing-in. “This is not a political issue … We’ll also be working with mayors and governors in red states and blue states, and ask them to require masking up in their cities and their states.

“Look, I hope we now know this is not a political issue, this is about saving lives. I know it’s become a partisan issue, but what a stupid, stupid thing to happen.”

Reynolds’ rollback of Iowa’s few significant COVID-19 restrictions on Friday did attract the attention of the White House.

“100 Days of masking to bend the curve,” Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted on Saturday, linking to a Gazette story on the governor’s action. “Is that too much to ask?

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