“I think no matter which way you go on this, you’re going to have people that are upset,” Ames city attorney Mark Lambert said Tuesday evening, responding to a question from council member Tim Gartin over the video conferencing program Zoom. The City Council had just kicked off a discussion about how to proceed with a contentious proposal to mandate the wearing of masks in public spaces as a public health measure to quell coronavirus outbreaks — one that both men advised against because it contradicted the legal position of Tom Miller, the state’s Democratic attorney general.
But other council members, and Lambert as well, noted that the law was far from settled. Several jurisdictions, including Dubuque and Iowa City, had already passed local mask mandates. In doing so, they set the stage for a potential court battle over local control. Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, refuses to join the majority of states that have issued a statewide mandate, despite recommendations from the head of the White House’s coronavirus task force and hundreds of other doctors. A letter the city recently sent Reynolds requesting permission to enact a local ordinance, Mayor John Haila said, had yet to be acknowledged — the derecho, he suggested, may have been a factor. At a press conference in early July, the governor told reporters that only the state had the authority to mandate masks.
On Tuesday morning, the Ames school board had made the bold announcement that it was filing a petition for judicial review in defiance of the state’s plan to force districts to start fall classes in person. The plan, which doesn’t require masks or social distancing, disregards the advice of experts at the CDC and World Health Organization. It’s also relied on flawed data, including a “glitch” that the Iowa Department of Public Health had known about for weeks before a nurse practitioner from Iowa City named Dana Jones forced the agency to publicly acknowledge the problem.
Lambert prepared a draft ordinance for Tuesday evening, as he’d been directed to do by a four-to-two vote at the council’s previous meeting a week earlier. He included in it a preamble asserting that the city believed it was acting within its lawful authority under the home rule amendment to the Iowa constitution. Still, council members David Martin and Gartin — who, for similar reasons, was the sole dissenting vote on a resolution mandating masks in city buildings that passed in late July — remained opposed, concerned Ames could become mired in costly litigation for flouting the state.
Gartin initiated a spirited debate about the proposal three days before the latest meeting on Facebook, where he was variously derided as a coward and praised for bravely standing up for the law. Urging civil dialogue, he predicted that the proposed ordinance would have enough votes to move forward despite his reservations. The outcome of Tuesday’s meeting, however, left this prediction hanging by a thread: The council directed Lambert to rework his draft to strip out its only means of enforcement, a $50 fine that police would use as a last resort after an educational approach failed.
The discussion leading to this moment came against the backdrop of local and national news coverage about Iowa State students testing positive for the coronavirus and throwing large parties in violation of university guidelines. Meanwhile, in Iowa City, images of unmasked students crowding into bars quickly spread across social media, as did stories of the miserable experiences of others who tested positive and were forced to quarantine. When the council’s discussion was opened for public comment, one resident opposed to a mandate mentioned that COVID-19 cases were trending downward, which was true nationally but not in Iowa. According to a New York Times analysis, as the weekend approached, both Ames and Iowa City ranked among the top five metro areas in the country with the most new cases per capita over the past two weeks.
“I believe this is a serious virus, and I’m compassionate to those who have lost their lives and have gotten sick,” said Traci Jennings, a local RE/MAX real estate broker also opposed to a mandate. “I believe, personally, that this may be a reactive proposal due to the recent community buzz from the state and national media received from the arrival of Iowa State students and the gatherings that happened on Saturday, August 15.” Jennings added that she believed any mask mandate would infringe on people’s constitutional rights.
Not all of the opposition was as grounded in reality. Another RE/MAX realtor who works in Ames, Mark Greenfield, encouraged Gartin on Facebook to continue pushing back on the proposal. Greenfield’s profile prominently displays the hashtag #WWG1WGA, which is short for “Where we go one, we go all,” a slogan for QAnon, the bizarre but increasingly popular conspiracy theory that a global cabal of satanic pedophiles including prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites is conspiring to take down President Trump. On his profile, Greenfield has called COVID-19 a “100% Hoax” and shared a post falsely suggesting that masks are being encouraged so that sex traffickers can conceal the identities of their child victims. Another post links to an article from conservative news site The Daily Wire about Walmart and Home Depot choosing not to enforce their mask requirements “following violent confrontations” instigated by angry customers. “Yes!” Greenfield cheered. “Keep up the resistance!”
Nearly two dozen people raised a virtual hand at the meeting so they would be recognized to speak over Zoom. Slightly more than half of them opposed the proposal, several in part because the council had previously voted down a motion to include a religious exemption for churchgoers. A few others were generally supportive of a mandate but had concerns about the city’s ability to enforce it, and with specific language in Lambert’s draft. For example, parents questioned how realistic it would be to get three-year-olds to consistently wear masks.
As Lambert noted in a memo that he submitted to the mayor and City Council along with the draft ordinance, the Story County Board of Health, citing the CDC, had recommended an even narrower exclusion of children two years of age and under, but under three “seemed more workable in the real world.” The recommendation was one of several the board made in late June, as COVID-19 was hitting its first peak in Story County. Among them, the most headline-grabbing was a plea for ISU to “prohibit spectators at sporting events this fall”; in mid-August, athletic director Jamie Pollard said his department was considering an option to limit attendance to family and friends of the athletes. “We cannot emphasize enough the importance of wearing properly fitted face coverings, including cloth face coverings and face shields, worn over the nose and mouth when out in public or around people,” read another recommendation.
The Board of Health met again on Tuesday, half an hour after the council meeting began, to discuss a mask mandate proposal of its own. According to John Paschen, a local pediatrician who chairs the board, a public hearing on the proposal was scheduled for early September after minor modifications were made to it. After the board makes a recommendation, it will go to the Story County Board of Supervisors for final consideration. The health board’s draft regulation cites state law to make the case that it would have the authority to enforce a penalty of $105 for a first offense and $855 for subsequent offenses.
At the council meeting, some of the strongest support for a mandate was voiced by ISU students, although one, Sehba Faheem, expressed frustration over the reactive nature of the proposal. “I feel like in Ames, this conversation should have been happening months ago, and before 30,000 people from all over the state and all over the country came back here,” she said. “Right now, Ames is the perfect petri dish for this virus.”
Nicole Whitlock, the council’s non-voting student liaison, described how her college roommate recently returned to Ames from her home in Chicago, where a mask mandate is in effect. “She saw all these people walking around without masks, and she did not feel comfortable here at all,” Whitlock said. “She was very, very worried about it … and she just honestly cannot believe that we don’t have any sort of requirement.”
Rachel Junck, an ISU student who unseated Chris Nelson in a runoff election last December to become the council’s newest — and, by a wide margin, its youngest — member, moved to vote on Lambert’s draft as written. But in a somewhat ironic turn of events, one of the mandate’s proponents, council member Gloria Betcher, voted against it out of concern that its $50 fine was too small to be an effective deterrent for all potential offenders. She joined Gartin and Martin, who didn’t want to consider enforcement at all without the state’s authorization, to reject Junck’s motion in a deadlocked vote.
Betcher subsequently moved to vote on a draft without the penalty clause, arguing that the ordinance could still be effective from an educational standpoint and could be amended in the future to include a penalty if necessary. Council member Amber Corrieri, who strongly opposed a mandate with no enforcement penalty, joined Gartin in voting nay after making a successful motion to include an exemption for childcare facilities (contrary to one of the county health board’s June recommendations). Joining Betcher and Martin, Junck and council member Bronwyn Beatty-Hansen reluctantly voted to direct Lambert to rewrite the ordinance so that the council could begin the process of voting on its passage — which could take up to six weeks — at its next meeting on September 8.
However, sensing the urgency of the matter, the city announced Friday evening that Mayor Haila had requested a special meeting convening next Tuesday, September 1. “Although the face covering ordinance was originally scheduled for consideration on Tuesday, Sept. 8,” the announcement explained, “recent COVID-19 positive test data for Story County from the Iowa Department of Public Health and continued urging from local healthcare professionals suggest action be taken sooner.” With a five-member supermajority, it added, the council could vote to suspend the rules and adopt the ordinance then, instead of reading it at three consecutive meetings as is customary.
Where the enforcement penalty was previously laid out, the updated language now reads in that section, “Compliance with this ordinance shall be obtained through education and encouragement only. There is no penalty for a violation of this ordinance.”
As COVID-19 cases continued to rise through the week, Governor Reynolds on Thursday morning ordered the closure of bars in six hotspot counties, including Black Hawk, Johnson, and Story, where the state’s three public universities are located. Affected businesses were given little more than six hours’ notice. Two bars in Polk County, where the new shutdown is also in effect, sued the state the following day, arguing that the governor’s decision was arbitrary and unreasonable.
In a Facebook post published on Friday, Corrieri said that her “heart is breaking” for responsible small business owners in Ames affected by the shutdown caused by the actions of “a few bad apples in the bunch.” She singled out two downtown drinking establishments that “have been doing EVERYTHING right to protect their staff and customers”: the Torrent Brewing Company and Main Street wine bar Della Viti (whose owner, Beth DeVries, spoke with the Informer about her cautious reopening strategy in early June, shortly after the first bar shutdown order was lifted).
“Yet reactive rather than proactive decisions continue to be made despite recommendations from local health experts and even the federal government,” Corrieri went on. She then criticized the council’s plan to proceed with an unenforceable mask ordinance. “If we aren’t mandating something, can we all step up to do what’s right — not just for the safe [sic] of public health but to keep our businesses open?” she asked. “If we don’t, there will absolutely be further impact to this community that we can’t quickly overcome.
“I’m pissed off and I hope you are too. We’ve got to do better.”
Correction: This article previously said the fine for the proposed county-wide mandate would be $65 for a first offense and $625 for subsequent offenses, in line with the penalties for simple misdemeanors. However, as of July 15, those fines were raised to $105 and $855.