Local Mask Mandates Remain in Effect Around Iowa Despite Governor Lifting COVID-19 Mitigation Measures

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announces a partial statewide mask mandate during a November 16 address. Screenshot: Iowa PBS/YouTube

At 12:01 this morning, the latest of Governor Kim Reynolds’ pandemic disaster proclamations went into effect, rescinding previous measures she’d ordered including a limited statewide mask mandate for certain indoor areas in mid-November. But although their legality at times has been disputed, similar regulations remain in effect in several local jurisdictions around the state, including Ames and Story County where the Informer is based.

Reynolds had long resisted calls for a statewide mandate, including one in late August from the White House Coronavirus Task Force when Iowa led the nation in the rate of new infections. In November, amid rising hospitalizations and with the holidays fast approaching, she finally relented. “No one wants to do this,” she said in a televised address as she announced her decision. “I don’t want to do this.”

The governor’s abrupt reversal Friday, which also included the lifting of mitigation requirements such as social distancing in bars and restaurants just in time for Super Bowl Sunday and as Iowa lags behind most other states in vaccine distribution, was predictably divisive. Iowa had already received national news attention that week over the controversial decision by Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature, which was exempted from the November mandate, not to require masks. After announcing she was lifting her previous orders, the stories continued, a Forbes reporter noting that the popular protest hashtag #CovidKim began trending on Twitter.

Meanwhile, several communities throughout Iowa are keeping their own mask mandates in effect, stressing public health recommendations that mitigation efforts should still be practiced despite a recent decline in hospitalization and infection rates.

At its final meeting of 2020 on December 22, the Ames City Council voted to extend a mask mandate, which went into effect in early September and was set to expire at the end of the year, through June 30. The mandate was adopted only after language allowing fines to be given to violators was stripped out due primarily to the concerns of two council members that this could subject the city to litigation from the state. Attorney General Tom Miller has agreed with Reynolds’ disputed position that local governmental bodies cannot enforce mandates that conflict with the governor’s proclamations or state law.

Ames is located in Story County, whose board of health pressed for a mandate shortly after the city’s went in effect. Supervisors delayed their decision until October over legal concerns from the county attorney’s office, which said it lacked the authority to enforce it and would not represent the county in a lawsuit stemming from a regulation that contradicted the state’s.

With this in mind, the regulation includes language citing a section of Iowa Code that stipulates “a local board of health shall … 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.” The county mandate went into effect on October 22 and will remain in place until the health board requests otherwise. Unlike the city of Ames’, it does include a punitive measure — a simple misdemeanor — but clarifies that this would not be enforced until the governor either delegates authority to local bodies (she’s typically just ignored their requests that she do so) or her current disaster proclamation “is lifted or allowed to expire.”

But while Reynolds did lift pandemic measures ordered in her previous proclamations effective this morning, she did so by issuing a new proclamation that does not expire until the end of the day on March 7. If she were to allow that to expire and Story County’s mask mandate became enforceable, it still wouldn’t apply to the city of Ames, whose own ordinance would take precedence. Even without an enforcement mechanism, however, supporters of local mask mandates have argued that they can strengthen public awareness, and a number of businesses have chosen to voluntarily abide by them.

Elsewhere in Iowa, local governments have said their mask requirements will also remain in place. On Saturday, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie announced that the local mandate he ordered last August — which the city argued was not in violation of state law but which local police have enforced through educational outreach rather than citations — was still active. “The governor’s decision is confusing and can’t be rationalized with the number of positive cases we continue to see across the state and here in Polk County,” he said, adding a reference to a variant of the coronavirus detected in the United Kingdom that is believed to be more contagious and was discovered in Iowa just days before Reynolds’ Friday proclamation. “With an alarmingly more transmissible version of the virus now detected in Iowa, it is more important than ever that our residents and visitors follow the advice of medical experts, keep social distance and whenever out in public, wear a mask.”

Iowa City officials released a statement similar to Cownie’s, saying that the mandate enacted last July in a proclamation by Mayor Bruce Teague would remain in effect through the end of May. The board of health for Johnston County, where Iowa City is located, announced that its mandate would remain through February 19.

Teague’s proclamation challenged the state’s position more directly from the start by including simple misdemeanor penalties he said were enforceable under the state’s home rule law, despite earlier protests and pushback from the attorney general after Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson ordered a similar mandate with a $500 fine for violators whose means of enforcement was soon thereafter defunded by the City Council. (Broderson’s proclamation was set to expire in January.)

Other local jurisdictions in Iowa that continue to have mask mandates include Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Waterloo, and Dubuque County, whose board of health recently scheduled a public hearing to consider extending its mandate’s current sunset date of March 1.

Local mask mandates have been challenged in court on at least two occasions in Iowa. A Waukee man sued his city’s mayor and police chief in September over a mandate, challenging their enforcement authority. That lawsuit appears to be stalled in court. Later last year, a more dubious lawsuit was filed against Cownie by a long-haul truck driver from Oregon who said she’d recently been forced to wear a mask at a Walmart in Des Moines and claimed the mandate violated her First Amendment rights. The state’s position that local governments cannot enforce such mandates remains an unsettled question of law.

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.