Iowa’s coronavirus situation is among the worst in the United States, but the state’s Republican governor isn’t listening to federal advice to be far more aggressive.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has made it clear she is resisting implementing coronavirus restrictions such as a mask mandate despite Iowa’s public health situation ranking poorly in the most recent report by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“I trust Iowans to do the right and I think they are doing the right thing,” Reynolds said at a press conference on Thursday when pressed on the issue of a mask mandate, and reiterated that Iowans should wear a mask if they can’t practice social distancing.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force painted a concerning picture about Iowa’s standing at this point of the pandemic in its most recent weekly report for the state, which the state’s public health department provided to The Daily Beast. The reports are sent out weekly across the nation and contain both a summary of the state’s health situation and recommendations for helping the individual states as the pandemic rages on.
The Hawkeye State is in the dangerous red zone—the most alarming category from the task force—when it comes to both cases and test positivity, according to the report. Test positivity is the sixth highest nationwide; “new cases per 100,000 population” ranks third highest.
The report did note however that “Iowa has seen a decrease in new cases and stability in test positivity over the last week,” before then advising the state to put in place far more restrictive mitigation measures than Reynolds has been willing to do at this stage of the pandemic.
“Require masks in metro areas and counties with COVID-19 cases among students or teachers in K-12 schools,” the task force recommended to the state, while also pushing that “bars must be closed, and indoor dining must be restricted to 50% of normal capacity in yellow zone and 25% of normal capacity in red zone counties and metro areas.”
In an Aug. 30 report, the task force report was more frank saying “mask mandates across the state must be in place to decrease transmission.”
The lack of action from the governor on masks has triggered a sense of disappointment from some local officials in areas that have put in place their own local requirements on face coverings like Cedar Falls city council member Frank Darrah.
“I think it puts us in a difficult situation,” Darrah said about the governor’s approach. “There's enough people that think that if the governor doesn't think it's important enough then it's probably not important. It's just frustrating."
The governor’s resistance to a statewide mask mandate particularly troubled Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa. The state isn’t going the right way when it comes to its fight against the coronavirus, he said, and there’s no sign that’ll change soon.
“She's handling it with a hands-off approach,” Perlman said of the governor. “She's making recommendations more based on what she perceives is the economic outcome of any decision she makes as opposed to the health outcomes. She has people around who are advising her on the health outcomes as well, but I don't think that those are the paramount factors in the decisions she's making. I think she's thinking more economically.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Reynolds seemed to warn localities when it came to them moving forward with mask requirements. Speaking to reporters on Aug. 6, the governor said she consulted with the state’s attorney general and “he has backed up that we don't believe during a public health emergency that the local governments have the authority to supersede what has been put in place at the statewide level by the governor.” That approach meant localities had to worry about whether they indeed have the power to put in place a local mask order.
Regardless, some local governments have put mask orders in place. The governor’s approach also caused Brad Hart, the Republican mayor of Cedar Rapids, to choose his words carefully in an interview Thursday with The Daily Beast. The mayor said over the last 55 days his area has had more confirmed cases than “in the first 110 days when the virus first came to Iowa.”
Hart mandated face masks in his city earlier this month but said he “would have preferred to have a statewide mandate," as he avoided explicitly criticizing the governor and declined to judge her on the issue.
"I'm not judging her by issuing a mask mandate here," he said. "I'm just trying to protect Cedar Rapidians."
Reynolds resistance also mirrors that of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. The GOP state leader, who tested positive for COVID-19 in July, has emphatically declared that he will not mandate masks statewide even after the task force issued reports encouraging him to make such a move.
The Iowa governor did take some action towards stricter mitigation measures late last month when on Aug. 27 she ordered bars in six counties to close according to a statement from her office. But that action still fell short of the Aug. 23 task force recommendations which recommended “bars must be closed, and indoor dining must be restricted to 50% capacity in yellow and 25% capacity in red zone counties and metro areas.”
That would have covered 61 counties in the state, according to the designations placed on localities by the task force report.
The task force also emphasized the need for more mask action saying in that same report “with the continued geographic expansion of COVID-19 spread, a mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide (in counties with 20 or more cases) to decrease community transmission.”
Calls for a large scale statewide requirement have also come from within Iowa, though Reynolds also appears to have paid them little to no mind. In a letter dated July 27, and reported on by The Des Moines Register, leaders from 15 health groups in Iowa wrote a three-page letter to the governor pleading for “a statewide public mask order for all Iowans over the age of two.”
Since then however, some communities have taken the issue into their own hands including in the city of Decorah. Kirk Johnson, a Democrat and at-large member of the Decorah City Council, described the state as “kind of a hot spot right now.”
“I think she's missing the point,” he said of the governor. “And I think that she's making more of a political statement about her support for the president than she is about the health and the well-being of Iowans.”