Watching Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds return to the podium last week to address the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic in Iowa after a month-long hiatus spent successfully advocating for the Republican Party across the state, it was difficult to avoid the following conclusion.
We’re really fucked now.
Reynolds spent October absent, for the most part, from her official administrative duties. She was touring the state (often maskless), advocating for the re-election of Donald Trump and Republican representation in the federal and state legislatures alongside people like her predecessor, Terry Branstad, who had abdicated his ambassadorship to China in order to hit the road for Iowa Republicans, and the president himself, who held multiple, densely packed, and mostly maskless outdoor gatherings ahead of the November election.
It was a cynical political gamble, a bet that holding numerous in-person events with lax or nonexistent mask-wearing regulations and mostly ignoring the public safety recommendations that Reynolds occasionally paid lip service to would make for a more forceful presence on election day. Reynolds and the Republicans bet that the opposition party — the Democrats who thought they could simply ride to victory on the strength of the rising death toll of the coronavirus despite their inability or unwillingness to present a convincing alternative to Republican policies — would be at a disadvantage campaigning at a distance and that there would be no reckoning for the illness and deaths that could be mitigated by shutting down bars and restaurants or installing a broad mask mandate that could prevent sickness and death.
The gamble paid off handsomely. The Republican victory in Iowa was a rout, the Democrats collapsed further into powerlessness, and the moment passed not with a chastening of Reynolds’ policies but a vindication. The governor returned to her podium with a democratically delivered mandate for her to simply continue looking on as the suffering and death piled up.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic in Iowa has gone from concerning to alarming on its way to catastrophic. This state, with a meager population of about three million, has neared about 190,000 coronavirus cases. What was once a steady trickling of daily deaths has become a growing stream. Hospitals across the state, already understaffed and under-resourced before the pandemic, are reaching a critical state. About one in 50 people in Iowa is currently infected with the coronavirus, and it will likely get worse.
In response to what can reasonably be called one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus in not just the United States but perhaps the entire world, Reynolds responded by waving her recently received mandate before the press and instituted new mask guidelines so full of exceptions as to be nearly completely ineffective. If even these comparatively lax guidelines had been introduced a few weeks earlier, much of her pre-election campaigning would’ve violated these guidelines.
“You can still eat in a restaurant. You can still go to a movie and work out at the gym … in many states you can’t do that,” Reynolds said when announcing these restrictions on November 10. “Iowa is open for business, and we intend to keep it that way. That’s why it’s time for these additional mitigation measures, but it will take all of us doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus and keep it at a manageable level that we can live with.”
On the evening of November 16, as hospitalizations climbed further and the state’s healthcare system was on the brink, Reynolds gave a televised press conference to introduce some minor alterations to the mask guidelines she put forth the week prior, taking a somber tone but stopping short of instituting guidelines that might meaningfully mitigate the virus.
The consequences of remaining open for business will be more suffering and more death, particularly among groups of people Reynolds and the state have proven they care little about. It’s been true since the beginning of the pandemic that Black and Latinx Iowans stood to be affected at higher rates by the virus despite making up a small minority of the state’s population. In rural Iowa, a vast expanse that houses the elderly and imprisoned with the same density and care it does hogs, nursing home residents are the most likely to die (the coronavirus has been blamed for nearly 1,000 nursing home deaths in the state) and prisoners are at high risk of infection (in the span of three days at the end of October, the number of Iowa inmates infected with the coronavirus doubled).
After a drawn-out battle between Reynolds and some of the state’s most populous school districts, many she coerced into attempting in-person learning are seeking to return to distanced learning as the pandemic deepens. Teachers across the state are dying, with one particularly tragic death occurring just three days after the teacher tested positive for the coronavirus. If the contempt that Reynolds and Republicans felt for teachers wasn’t clear when they gutted teachers’ collective bargaining abilities in 2017, this should make it clear. Even if teachers are upset about their status as sacrificial lambs, they have little recourse and would be punished excessively if they attempted to strike.
In the halcyon days of the 2020 Iowa Caucus, I wrote in an essay for Vice that Iowans generally practice “deep complacency in the face of the systemic issues that are devouring the state from the inside out.” The horrifying and largely avoidable escalation of the coronavirus pandemic in the state has proven this to be true in a deadly way. The unwillingness of many Iowans to take simple practical measures to wear masks in public and socially distance adequately is less an expression of their collective death drive than it is a deep commitment to the appearance of normalcy and business as usual, even if it’s against their best interest. Trump’s politicization of the dangers posed by the coronavirus and Reynolds’ unwillingness to respond with serious mitigation measures has only made it worse.
The eruption in positive coronavirus cases, the filling up of hospitals, and the ramping up of deaths seen in November is likely the beginning and there’s little help on the horizon. If President-elect Joe Biden manages to ascend to power despite Trump’s half-hearted coup — dutifully supported by Reynolds and Iowa Republicans — and installs his promised federal mask mandate, it will already likely be too late for thousands of dead Iowans and any attempts at enforcement here will probably be fought tooth and nail.
What, then, could possibly be done from this far up the proverbial shit creek without a paddle? What can a political minority do in the face of the rampant sickness and death unfolding around them while the political majority has made clear their commitment to a superficial normalcy a desire to remain “open for business?”
There’s only been one example of a successful lobbying effort against the Reynolds administration. When groups like Des Moines’ Black Liberation Movement and Iowa City’s Freedom Riders took to the streets throughout the summer, Reynolds was finally prompted to repeal Branstad’s 2011 executive order barring felons from voting. Though she was clearly loath to do it and made no meaningful effort to assist in registering that demographic prior to the 2020 election, the direct action taken by these organizations, though it was met at every turn with punitive arrests and condemnation from Republicans and many Democrats alike, achieved concrete results. Any meaningful protest against Reynolds’ unwillingness to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic would likely require something similar in order to achieve anything similar.