Wear a mask, Iowa Public Health Association asks state lawmakers

The Irving Webster statue on Iowa Avenue in downtown Iowa City, wearing the recommended COVID-19 protection. June 24, 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The Iowa Public Health Association (IPHA) sent an open letter to the state legislature on Thursday, asking lawmakers to “accept your position of critical role models to the people of Iowa” and “lead by example and always wear a mask during your work at the Capitol and ask others to do the same.”

As IPHA Executive Director Lina Tucker Reinders notes in the letter, “The evidence is clear that masks are a critical component of a comprehensive mitigation strategy.”

Both Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and Speaker of Iowa House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, have rejected mandating legislature, staff or visitors to the Iowa Capitol wear masks. Visitors are required to have a temperature check and answer some health-related questions on a questionnaire administered by Capitol security officers.

According to the guidelines set by Whitver and Grassley before the legislature reconvened on Monday, members and staff who test positive for COVID-19 are not required to report their status.

“[Whitver] and I have not taken this lightly as far as going through every option that we have before us,” Grassley said last week. “When it comes specifically to the masks, just like I plan on telling the caucus, my plan is to wear a mask when I can’t socially distance.”

Whitver and Grassley have said it would not be possible to enforce a mask mandate.

Democrats have objected to the refusal of Republican leaders to meet even the minimal standards set by Gov. Kim Reynolds. Since Nov. 16, the governor has required people in buildings open to the public to wear masks if they are going to be within six feet of anyone else for more than 15 minutes.

“Your lame reasoning about not being able to require legislators to wear masks is a joke,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said in a speech on the Senate floor. “I’m mandated to wear this tie and this jacket to be able to stand at this microphone and speak.”

It’s not just male members of the Senate who are required to wear a tie and jacket in the Senate — male staffers and members of the media are also required to do so. (The Iowa House requires a tie, but not a jacket.)

IPHA said in its letter that the more than 400 public health professionals it represents are “gravely concerned about events at the Capitol contributing to the spread of the pandemic.”

As the legislature was convening for its first day of the new session on Monday, hundreds of people crowded into the Capitol to protest the use of face masks and vaccines.

“There is no rationale for the State Capitol to be excluded from Governor Reynolds’ proclamation” with its limited mask mandate, IPHA said. In the absence of a mandate, the association is hoping lawmakers will behave responsibly and voluntarily wear masks.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan association, founded in 1925 to promote improvements in public health in Iowa, sent an open letter to Reynolds in July asking her to either require face masks or permit local governments to do so. In that letter, IPHA also asked the governor to allow school districts to have “the flexibility to conduct the school year as best suits their communities.”

“We must trust their ability to deliver exceptional educational content, whether in person or online, while meeting the health and safety needs of all involved — kids, teachers, nurses, custodians, and beyond,” the association said.

The governor eventually issued the limited mask mandate four months later, as she acknowledged “the pandemic in Iowa is worse than it has ever been.”

Reynolds has not allowed local school districts the flexibility IPHA recommended, and in her Condition of the State speech on Tuesday, the governor told legislators she wants them to “immediately” pass a bill mandating all school districts provide 100 percent in-person instruction to any students whose parents request it, even if a school board or county public health department believes doing so will endanger the health of students, teachers, school staff or the wider community.

Some audience members chose not to wear a mask during Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State address at the State Capitol, Jan. 12, 2020. — video still/Iowa PBS

IPHA’s open letter to the legislature comes on the same day the state surpassed 300,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. At 10 a.m. on Thursday, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported another 1,532 had tested positive for the virus during the preceding 24 hours.

The new cases brought the total number of Iowans who have tested positive since the virus was first detected in the state on March 8 to 301,442.

The department also reported another 19 deaths from the virus on Thursday. Iowa’s COVID-19 death toll now stands at 4,251.

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