On Mask Mandate, Story County Goes Back to the Drawing Board

John Paschen, chair of the Story County Board of Health, during the board's meeting Wednesday night held over Zoom. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Six days after a mask mandate went into effect in the city of Ames but without any means of enforcement, the Story County Board of Supervisors balked Thursday morning on a recommendation made the previous evening by the Board of Health to enact a county-wide mandate in an effort to mitigate local coronavirus outbreaks.

The proposed county regulation was closely modeled on a mask mandate enacted a month ago to the day in Johnson County, where the University of Iowa is located, that makes violations a simple misdemeanor. The penalty, which according to Iowa law is enforceable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine ranging from $105 to $855, mirrored that of a proclamation issued in late July by Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague. He did so in open defiance of Republican Governor Kim Reynolds, who has repeatedly drawn critical news coverage from the state and national press for ignoring the advice of health experts in her administration’s response to the pandemic.

Supervisors in Story County, who were present and masked at the county administration building in Nevada on Thursday morning but held the meeting over Zoom, didn’t reject the health board’s recommendation outright. Instead, by a unanimous vote, the three-member board instructed the county attorney’s office to inquire with the county’s insurance provider, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool (more commonly referred to as ICAP), to determine whether coverage would be denied in the event of a lawsuit over a mandate enacted before the expiration of proclamations issued by Reynolds.

The governor’s latest proclamation, which ordered bars to close in Story, Johnson, Polk, and three other counties but only “strongly encourage[d]” Iowans to wear masks, expires at the end of the day on September 20. However, Ethan Anderson, an assistant county attorney, also reiterated his office’s legal opinion that the mandate would not be enforceable without the permission of the governor, who did not respond to requests for it from county officials nor the city of Ames.

Anderson told the supervisors that his office would not represent the county in a lawsuit over a mandate enacted despite this, adding that it was also the opinion of Democrat Tom Miller, the state attorney general, that local bodies did not have such authority. (This has yet to be litigated, although courts have ruled in recent days that school districts, including Ames’, are not allowed to hold sporting events and other extracurricular activities while classes are online-only because the Iowa Department of Education has said otherwise.)

A mask purchased from a rack of face coverings at the east Ames Hy-Vee, which was manufactured in Dongguan City in the Guangdong Province of China. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

John Paschen, an Ames pediatrician who chairs the Story County Board of Health, told the Informer Thursday morning before the supervisors’ vote that Reynolds “put us in a very hard situation as we’re trying to combat” the pandemic. The final draft of the proposed regulation cited a section of Iowa Code granting the authority of local health boards to “make and enforce such reasonable rules and regulations not inconsistent with law and the rules of the state board as may be necessary for the protection and improvement of the public health.” But Paschen said that the recommendation was made with the idea that the county would have something in its “back pocket” ready to go if and when Reynolds reversed course.

“I’m very disappointed in Governor Reynolds,” said Linda Murken, a former correctional services director who chairs the Board of Supervisors. “Twice now, the White House has said we need to do a mask mandate, we need to close more bars.” But Murken had several concerns about the county proposal, including the position it would put the sheriff’s office in with enforcing a penalty of disputed legality. She also suggested that a penalty may harden the resolve of residents already adamantly opposed to wearing a mask, leading to further tensions.

Murken proposed amending the draft regulation by clarifying that it would not go into effect until either the governor’s latest proclamation expires later this month or until she granted enforcement powers to local government entities. But Anderson advised this would risk invalidating the regulation entirely, if it were approved at Thursday’s meeting without going through the proper steps including the advance publication of a public notice — a process that Paschen said could take two weeks or longer, when time was of the essence.

Lauris Olson, the supervisor who later proposed the vote directing the county attorney’s office to investigate how a lawsuit might affect insurance coverage, expressed frustration with sheriff’s deputies who she said had indicated their unwillingness to enforce a mandate. (Voters could use the ballot box to voice their displeasure, she added, although Democrat Paul Fitzgerald is the only candidate for county sheriff this November.)

The health board’s meeting Wednesday evening, also conducted over Zoom, was intended to be the culmination of nearly half a dozen meetings concerning a county-wide response to the pandemic. The board previously recommended face coverings in June and later encouraged towns throughout the county to implement mandates of their own, as Ames eventually did.

Opinions voiced by county residents during a public forum were predictably mixed. Hannah Wickham, an Iowa State University student pursuing a doctorate in toxicology, said potential fines for those who disregard a mandate was “a great idea” because of the scientific evidence suggesting masks can be effective in preventing carriers of the virus from transmitting it.

“My opinion is, we’re just delaying nature taking its course,” said Erik Charter, a conservative accountant who works for the Jensen Group, an Ames real estate company, and lives in the small town of Huxley to its immediate south. “We’re just lengthening the economic problems we have right now by those measures that were taken.” He contrasted this “extreme” approach to the pandemic with the controversial one taken in Sweden, using an argument popular among coronavirus contrarians on the right. “Basically, things are over there, for the most part,” he said. “They are not dying, and they just let nature take its course.”

The death rate from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Scandinavian nation is among the highest in Europe but, recently, the number of new infections there has sharply declined as other countries struggle to suppress a second wave of outbreaks. Many have interpreted Sweden’s strategy as an unstated attempt to establish herd immunity — when a large enough percentage of the population has developed a resistance to a virus, usually through both prior infections and vaccinations. However, current data suggests that this has not come close to happening, and more time is needed before health experts may be able to reach a consensus about whether the country’s approach succeeded or failed.

Supervisor Lisa Heddens, who was present at the health board’s meeting in her role as its non-voting, ex officio member, offered a counterpoint on Thursday to the sort of laissez-faire approach supported by Charter. “We all want our local economy back,” she said, arguing that a collective effort that included a mask mandate was necessary before a return to normalcy would be possible.

A sign positioned near the entrance of the east Ames Hy-Vee grocery store after the City Council passed a mask ordinance on September 1. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Another resident on Wednesday said he had concerns about making violations subject to the criminal penalty of a simple misdemeanor. “The following regulation is not intended to be punitive or stigmatizing and is in the best interest of health, safety, and economy recovery,” the enforcement section of the draft read. It did not mention anything about a potential jail sentence, stating that a first offense would be punishable by the minimum fine for a simple misdemeanor and subsequent offenses by the maximum.

Mark Speck, the health board’s vice chair and owner of Ames business Speck Plumbing, was not entirely opposed to a regulation but moved to strip the enforcement section from the draft — similar to the route the Ames council ultimately took when members were deadlocked on a mandate with a $50 penalty.

But his suggestion was rejected by the board’s four other voting members in two successive decisions, the first to keep the language as originally drafted for the meeting and the second authorizing Paschen to officially recommend that the Board of Supervisors enact the regulation. On both, Speck was the sole dissenting vote.

Should county officials eventually come to an agreement and enact a mask mandate, enforceable or not, Anderson and Paschen both said that based on Iowa law, the regulation would apply to unincorporated parts of the county as well as any municipality that doesn’t have an ordinance of its own. Currently in Story County, Ames is the only city to have passed one. Some residents are not taking it seriously, since there’s no penalty for violations, but businesses like Hy-Vee that previously resisted calls to make their customers wear masks have now posted signs near the entrance saying they are required.

In lieu of a enforcement mechanism, Ames police have been carrying disposable masks to hand out to residents as part as educational effort, Olson said. This approach is similar to the one taken by the city of Des Moines, although its mandate was ordered by Mayor Frank Cownie. Polk County supervisors have said they don’t plan to implement a broader regulation, although last month they also encouraged the governor to issue a statewide mandate or grant local governments the authority to do it themselves.

As for Story County, Murken said after Thursday’s vote by the Board of Supervisors: “I don’t think our inaction today, or our not taking action today, means that we are not for face coverings or [don’t] realize the importance. We will continue to encourage every Story County resident to wear face coverings.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.