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Supervisors to ask Gov. Reynolds for authority to make, enforce local face mask mandate

Robbie Sequeira
Staff Writer
A group of People wearing masks walk around downtown Ames on Tuesday, Aug. 4. File Photo by Nirmalendu Majumdar/ Ames Tribune

Story County supervisors are joining a growing movement across Iowa to seek the authority to issue local mask mandates.

They voted Tuesday to ask Gov. Kim Reynolds to authorize the move. The city of Ames and the Polk County supervisors have made similar requests of Reynolds, who maintains local governments do not have the authority to impose requirements that go beyond those in her emergency orders for combating the coronavirus. She has steadfastly resisted pressure to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying masks are not a guarantee against infection.

But Story County supervisors Chair Linda Murken noted that health experts say face coverings are effective in cutting the risk, even if they don’t negate it.

“We do not eliminate risk, we reduce risk and there are a lot of opinions and research out there on the best steps toward that, and we have to look really critically at it,” Murken told the Tribune on Tuesday. “We also have to look to our means and what’s within our control.”

Some Iowa mayors and governments, including those in Muscatine, Iowa City, Johnson County and Mount Vernon, have chosen to defy Reynolds, issuing mask requirements. So far, none has issued fines and Reynolds has made no move to nullify their mandates, though Attorney General Tom Miller has backed her assertion of authority.

The Story County Board of Health had asked that the supervisors adopt an enforceable mask requirement countywide. Murken said that in addition to asking for Reynolds’ permission, the supervisors will send a letter to Board of Health Chair John Paschen requesting that the board work with the county attorney’s office on drafting an ordinance.

“I don’t know when we’ll get a response from the governor,” she said, “but we also want to work with the health board and our attorney’s office, so that if we need to make a decision, we can get the process started.”

All three supervisors made it clear that the earliest any face-covering could be enforceable would be September, citing the need not only to draft an ordinance but to provide notice and hold a public meeting.

“It’s going to be a process,” Supervisor Lauris Olson said. “We’re watching people walk around without mask and without social distancing. … We have to decide what’s the best decision to do to prevent more COVID-19 cases.”

Ethan Anderson, legal counsel for the county, said that he could not legally recommend the supervisors go against Reynolds and Miller by adopting a mandate outright, and identified risks for the county including potential legal action and being held responsible for legal fees.

Anderson also said that under home rule, municipalities may be able to supersede an adopted facemask mandate, adopting their own counteracting mandates.

“(The mandate) wouldn’t be legally enforceable until the governor waives the public health proclamation or allows municipalities to take their own actions,” he said. “But also, you could have a situation, and this is speculation, where municipalities decide they don’t want to do this and could draft their own local ordinance superseding this mandate.”

The Story County health board defines an appropriate face-covering which includes cloth face coverings and face shields that:

  • have a “snug” fit and is comfortable against the side of the face,
  • completely covers the nose and mouth and is secured with ties or ear loops,
  • allows for breathing without restriction, and
  • can be cleaned and disinfected or laundered and dried without damage or change to the shape of the mask.

According to the board, places and times where people are exempt from wearing a face-covering include:

  • traveling in a vehicle alone or with household members,
  • while a person is alone or in is in the presence of only household members, and
  • while exercising at moderate or high intensity e.g. jogging or biking.