An ordinance requiring masks to be worn in public within the city of Ames goes into effect today, although local authorities have no means of enforcing the new law beyond the power of suggestion.
The measure passed by a 5-1 vote Tuesday night, at a special council meeting that was requested a week ago by Mayor John Haila. He did so in response to an ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus that skyrocketed Ames to the top of a New York Times list of the metro areas with the most new cases of COVID-19 per capita across the entire country — and among the most in the world. (The metro area includes all of Story County, although recent cases were predominantly from college students in Ames.)
Despite this, and a recommendation from the White House’s coronavirus task force that social gatherings in the state be limited to 10 people or fewer, Iowa State University athletic director Jamie Pollard announced Monday that as many as 25,000 season ticket holders would be allowed to attend the Cyclones’ football opener September 12 against Louisiana. Just two days later, the university reversed course. ISU President Wendy Wintersteen had made the decision the previous night but apparently didn’t inform Governor Kim Reynolds, who just an hour before its announcement told reporters, “If you have underlying conditions and you’re part of a vulnerable population, maybe I wouldn’t go to the Iowa State football game next week.”
Pollard’s initial decision was (belatedly) mocked by The Onion and previously resulted in a spate of critical coverage from national news outlets, which had already drawn negative attention to the university by reporting on large parties thrown by students without regard for the pandemic. In response to that, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen threatened suspensions for violations of the university’s COVID-19 mitigation rules, which include a requirement that masks be worn on campus.
Although the ordinance that the city adopted Tuesday was referred to as a “mandate,” it has no similar disincentive for potential violators. At the council’s previous meeting on August 25, city attorney Mark Lambert presented a draft ordinance that included a $50 fine for noncompliance that was envisioned as a last resort if an educational approach failed. Council member Rachel Junck, an ISU student, moved to vote on the ordinance as drafted. But a deadlocked council rejected the proposal, opting instead to advance an ordinance with no enforcement mechanism that would avoid a potential legal showdown with the state.
Three and a half hours before Tuesday’s meeting began, Junck tweeted a statement encouraging the council to reconsider an enforceable mandate. “While I am concerned with the Attorney General’s informal opinion stating that the governor has the sole legal authority to mandate masks in Iowa,” she said, “given the choice between the lives of our community members, and a potential headache for the city’s legal department, the decision is clear: we must act.” At the beginning of meeting, Junck moved to vote again on Lambert’s original draft; the motion was defeated by the same three-to-three result, with council members Gloria Betcher, Tim Gartin, and David Martin opposed. (To clear up “misconceptions” about her votes, Betcher later reiterated that she supported the idea of a mandate but thought a $50 fine would be too small to compel some residents to change their behavior and could lead to avoidable confrontations with police.)
The meeting was held virtually using the video conferencing software Zoom. By Haila’s count, three dozen people signed in to speak during a public forum shortly after Junck’s motion failed, as half the council grappled with intermittent connection issues. Opinions were sharply divided between supporters of a mandate and its comparably fervent opponents, who on numerous occasions relied on misleading or discredited arguments mirroring those that have appeared in viral social media posts and commentary from COVID-19 contrarians in the right-wing media. Several speakers mixed personal anecdotes with largely unfounded theories to bolster claims that scientific evidence proved the pandemic had been overhyped, or that the country was headed down the path to authoritarianism.
One speaker choked up as she mentioned the increased prevalence of suicidal ideation during the pandemic — a very real concern, although one that has also been exploited by right-wing political figures including President Trump, who warned in March, without any evidence, that deaths by suicide would eclipse those caused by COVID-19 in the event of a prolonged economic shutdown (they haven’t). The speaker added that the average age of death from the virus (the median age, actually, according to the US Centers for Disease Control), 78, matched the average life expectancy in the United States.
Another spoke of how her husband spent early January working in China, about 50 miles outside of Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first reported last December. When he returned to Ames, she said, neither fell ill (although she added that they “had some bad colds and the flu”). After explaining that her family had made the personal decision not to wear masks, she described how she was raped at the age of 19 by a perpetrator who covered her mouth during the attack — raising a serious concern among survivors of sexual violence who say they have avoided public spaces to avoid judgment for not wearing masks, which can trigger traumatic flashbacks.
A somewhat similar concern was brought up by Katie Bents, a nurse who lives outside of Ames and also strongly opposed an enforceable mandate. She said that her teenaged son could not tolerate wearing a mask because he has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to someone attempting to enforce a mandate. (Lambert, the city attorney, later said there was a clause in the proposed ordinance that would exempt him, although her other point remained.) “I know this sounds silly,” Bents added as she abruptly switched her focus to “problems with little children who are being kidnapped,” echoing an argument popular among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory that a global cabal of satanic pedophiles including prominent Democrats and Hollywood actors is attempting to thwart Trump from exposing their sex-trafficking network.
“Currently, I think we have two patients, maybe, here in Story County that have been hospitalized,” said Ames resident Rebekah Bunting, a pharmaceutical-industry professional who said she is involved with clinical trials and drug development. “Two. And we don’t even know if they were hospitalized for a different pre-existing condition.” (A Facebook message posted Wednesday on the page of the city’s hospital, the Mary Greeley Medical Center, noted that “over the past month or so we’ve averaged 7 to 13 COVID patients each day.”) Bunting said that she manages 23,000 patients and only knew of six who had contracted the virus. All of them, she claimed, recovered after taking hydroxychloroquine, a controversial and potentially dangerous antimalarial drug touted by Trump — as well as disreputable doctors and a CEO involved in the TestIowa initiative with a financial conflict of interest — as a “game-changer” but whose effectiveness in treating COVID-19 has not been established.
“We’re looking at numbers,” she continued. “Currently, the numbers don’t show that this is a crazy increase in cases. The media’s going to want you to think that. The media’s going to want to keep you in a place of fear.” Referring to previous comments from a local business owner who said his wife has a brain tumor and spoke about his related anxiety with customers not wearing masks, Bunting said she would not give him her business, adding that she no longer shopped at Wheatsfield, a grocery cooperative that requires masks, “because I’m not welcome in their store.”
“I was originally born in a communist country,” said Julianna Starling, a resident with a background in health information management, sounding as if she was on the verge of crying, “and to think that I see the US pushing [for a mandate] not only at a countrywide scale but even on a local level is shocking to me.” She read a widely misinterpreted quote from Benjamin Franklin on liberty and safety that was actually a defense of a government’s authority to tax citizens in favor of their collective security. Referencing research she’d “spent all night finishing” before sending an email that morning to Haila and Gartin — an opponent, for other reasons, of every proposed mandate the council has considered — she added, “When you come down to actually look at the science the government has provided, it’s very clear that there’s no true randomized, controlled study to prove any effectiveness on masks.”
There was truth to this, as acknowledged in an editorial published in mid-July that was co-authored by virologist and CDC Director Robert Redfield. “Any type of community-based randomized trial will be complex to deploy in the right setting (a community with active infection) at the right time (when infections are increasing) to produce actionable results quickly,” it read. “In the absence of such data, it has been persuasively argued the precautionary principle be applied to promote community masking because there is little to lose and potentially much to be gained.”
After the CDC recommended in early April that people wear cloth face coverings in public, health experts offered conflicting opinions about their efficacy in reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The authors of a paper published that month by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the “current level of benefit, if any, is not possible to assess” because no studies had been come out yet exploring whether cloth masks could block tiny aerosol droplets that are believed to transmit the virus through the air.
However, mask studies — including randomized controlled trials — were conducted before the emergence of COVID-19 that focused on viruses with similar methods of transmission, like influenza. A review of several of those studies, published in May by the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that there was “convincing evidence” to support the CDC’s recommendation. “The point is not that some particles can penetrate but that some particles are stopped, particularly in the outward direction,” its authors wrote, referring specifically to cloth masks. “Every virus-laden particle retained in a mask is not available to hang in the air as an aerosol or fall to a surface to be later picked up by touch.”
There is a growing body of evidence that masks — if used properly and in combination with other mitigation practices, such as social distancing — likely provide meaningful protection in public settings, especially when worn by carriers of the virus. “Clearly, collaborative efforts are needed over polemicism and division for rapid scientific progress to address the current global crisis,” read an article published in early August by medical journal The Lancet. The article suggested that “the use of masks will probably outweigh any potential downsides,” such as self-contamination, in “highly populated areas that have high infection rates” including the US.
“If larger relative effects of masks are confirmed by forthcoming trials, and the entire population wants to make a contribution to reduce transmission, then a few months of universal facemask wearing would achieve a lot, but it will come at a cost,” its authors added. “That cost might be lower than not reopening businesses and schools once baseline risk achieves acceptable levels. As no intervention is associated with affording complete protection from infection, a combination of measures will always be required, now and during the next pandemic.”
Proponents of a mask mandate raised similar points at Tuesday’s council meeting. “This is not a decision that can be delayed,” said Lee Anne Willson, an emerita professor of astronomy at ISU, thanking the council for scheduling the special meeting before emphasizing how the coronavirus spreads exponentially. “To delay by two weeks in this is like delaying two hours in trying to put out a fire.”
Others shared stories about how they had been infected, were in close contact to someone who was but credited their negative test results to consistent mask usage, or were personally too nervous to go out in public without wearing a mask. Several speakers chided fellow residents for what they perceived as their selfish disregard for scientific evidence and the wellbeing of their community. April Finley, an ISU admissions counselor, took a less confrontational approach, invoking Iowa Nice in a plea to “do what it takes to protect fellow Iowa citizens.”
“I have watched with alarm the rise in cases in Story County over the past days and weeks, as have many of my close friends who grew up in Ames and no longer live there,” said Andy Piltser, a former resident himself whose parents still live in town. “The prevailing sentiment among all of us last night, when we read the news about the football game, was this is the first time that we have ever been happy that we left Ames.” Piltser now lives in Somerville, a suburb of Boston and the most densely populated city in New England, where a local mask mandate was implemented in late April (a week before a statewide mandate went into effect) with a maximum penalty of $300 for “persons showing willful disregard” following a weeklong grace period. “My view, having lived under that mask mandate for the past several months now, is that it is the smallest of the impositions upon our liberty this pandemic has brought us,” he said, “and it is, if anything, one that has allowed us to relax other impositions on our liberty, as well as having saved lives.”
Cindy Paschen, a resident of Story County and Democratic candidate for Iowa Senate District 24, shared an anecdote that was also cited in the CDC’s July editorial about two symptomatic hair stylists in Springfield, Missouri, who tested positive for COVID-19, exposing well over a hundred customers but apparently infecting none of them. The stylists wore masks, as required under a local health order.
Paschen’s husband, Ames pediatrician John Paschen, chairs the Story County Board of Health, which is holding a public hearing on September 9 regarding a proposal to mandate face coverings at the county level. As currently drafted, the regulation would be enforced by the sheriff’s office as a simple misdemeanor with a fine of $105, or $855 for subsequent offenses, per Iowa law. According to Lambert, however, the Ames mandate would supersede it, rendering it toothless as well at the epicenter of Story County’s recent outbreak.
In lieu of enforcement, suggested local developer Dickson Jensen, the mandate could be publicized through signage and social media, with compliance encouraged by positive reinforcement that could also help local businesses struggling to survive as a result of the pandemic. “I believe allowing our men and women in blue to distribute gift certificates over the next several months, so that citizens can get a free ice cream cone, a free pizza, or a free burger and fries, would be appropriate at this time in the world, when our police officers are so many times looked at as negative versus positive,” he said. “Instead of having them be the bad guys, let’s let them put a smile on someone’s face.” Jensen offered to personally donate $10,000 toward his proposed effort and challenged the city and ISU to each contribute an additional $100,000.
Before the vote to adopt the mask ordinance, council member Bronwyn Beatty-Hansen expressed interest in revisiting Jensen’s proposal but said she thought it should be considered separately from the mandate itself. After some minor revisions that included changing a sunset clause from the end of next May to the end of December this year, the council voted to fast-track final approval of the ordinance, adopting it by a five-to-one vote.
Once again, the nay vote was cast by Gartin. He, too, seemed interested in Jensen’s idea, but expressed frustration with how divisive the mask issue had become and suggested there should have been more discussion about why proponents of the mandate believed the city had the authority to enact it against the legal opinion of the governor and Iowa attorney general.
“To be honest,” he added, “I don’t know what a mandate without a penalty is.”