Gov. Kim Reynolds requires Iowans to wear masks at large gatherings to thwart spread of the coronavirus
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Tuesday that she will require masks at many public gatherings as new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to set records.
Reynolds, who has long resisted calls from health professionals to issue a statewide mask mandate, pointed to the rising community spread in the state, where the number of cases has begun to put a strain on the hospital system.
“You can still eat in a restaurant. You can still go to a movie and work out at the gym —and in many states you can’t do that," Reynolds said at a Tuesday morning news conference. "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.”
Reynolds' proclamation carried the first new coronavirus mitigation measure the governor has taken since late August, when she closed bars in six Iowa counties because of high rates of virus transmission among young adults. The last of those bars were allowed to reopen on Oct. 5.
Although Reynolds signaled on Tuesday she was open to pursuing further measures if coronavirus spread doesn't decrease, some groups, including Democratic leaders in the state Legislature, criticized the governor's measures as too little, too late.
"Governor Reynolds' latest steps to fight COVID are like buying a smoke detector after your house is blazing out of control," Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said in a statement.
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What the new orders require
The new proclamation, which is effective 12:01 a.m. Wednesday through 11:59 p.m. Nov. 30, sets out new restrictions on gatherings of various sizes, including mask mandates for larger groups.
Indoor social, community, recreational, leisure or sporting events of more than 25 people or outside events of 100 people are banned, unless all attendees over the age of 2 wear masks.
Additionally, all events with more than 10 people must ensure 6 feet of social distancing between groups and take other precautions.
And at any gathering, groups of people attending these events can be no larger than eight people, with an exception for members of the same household
For youth and high school sporting events, if more than 25 people are at an indoor event, all spectators over 2 must wear masks and keep 6 feet between other spectators. Athletes are not required to wear masks.
Each youth athlete can have only two spectators. That two-person spectator limit does not apply to the high school football playoffs, Reynolds' spokesperson, Pat Garrett, clarified Tuesday afternoon, but all those spectators must wear masks.
The mask requirements do not apply to schools and churches, nor do they apply to the Iowa Legislature when it reconvenes in January.
"They'll have to make their own decision," Reynolds said of lawmakers.
The proclamation mandates masks in salons, barbershops, massage therapy establishments, tattoo establishments and tanning facilities, except when the masks need to be removed for facial services.
Masks are also not required at restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, arcades and indoor playgrounds, which may have more than 25 people inside at a time, but the governor's order requires 6 feet of distancing between groups, and a limit of eight people per group unless a larger group is from the same household. In restaurants and bars, people must remain seated when eating or drinking and limit congregating.
In her proclamation, Reynolds recommended employers evaluate whether more of their employees can work remotely. She also encouraged all Iowans to consider their choices in attending gatherings, which she said could lead to "some really hard decisions." People should also consider quarantining after attending events to monitor for symptoms, she said.
"Please consider avoiding events where public health measures may not be followed," she said. "Especially if you're someone who is more at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of age or other health conditions."
New measures come as virus activity soars
Reynolds last week said she would launch a public awareness campaign this week to encourage proper behavior but did not issue new restrictions or guidance to Iowans.
More:'More severe and more critical': Coronavirus surging in Iowa; Reynolds, doctors plead for Iowans to help stop the spread
Over the past several weeks, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have surged across the state to record levels. As of Tuesday morning, more than 1,100 Iowans were hospitalized from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Iowa had seen an 84% increase in hospitalizations from Oct. 25 to Sunday.
More than 161,000 Iowans have tested positive for the virus. About a quarter of that total, 40,286 people, tested positive in the past two weeks, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health tally.
Meghan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist consulting for Polk County, said at a briefing Tuesday morning that although the virus is surging around the country, Iowa stands out. She said the increase here is three times as steep as the national average.
Over the past several months, Reynolds has rebuffed calls from the White House coronavirus task force and many Iowa medical professionals to consider a statewide mask mandate, calling the measure unenforceable. She has also pointed to rising cases in states such as Wisconsin that have mask mandates as proof of limited effectiveness.
"A lot of the states, they’ve done that, but they’ve said there’s absolutely no enforcement," she said during a July 30 news conference. "They’ve put it right in the declaration: ‘We’re going to issue a face mandate, but we’re not going to enforce it.’ And if you look at the cases and the timelines that they actually issued a mandate, the cases are still rising, so it’s just, there’s not a silver bullet, there’s not a single answer."
But Reynolds said Tuesday that her partial mask mandate would be enforced like the rest of her public health measures — by local law enforcement. She said the law enforcement role includes educating people about compliance and, as a last resort, charging people with a simple misdemeanor.
"They'll continue the same practices that we've had all along," she said.
Reynolds' increased measures come two days after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, also a Republican, introduced a mask mandate in his state despite opposing one for many months.
More:Read the Full text of Gov. Kim Reynolds' proclamation on masks at gatherings in Iowa
Public health experts: Implement a true mask mandate
Dr. Eli Perencevich, a top infectious disease researcher at the University of Iowa, called Reynolds' proclamation a "fake mask mandate" on Twitter. In a follow-up email to the Des Moines Register, he said that "if Iowans want a hospital bed when they are sick and they want to see a doctor or nurse when they are sick," then they need to push Reynolds to follow Utah's lead in implementing a statewide mask mandate."
"Currently, Iowans (my patients) think that if bars and indoor restaurants are open, that they are safe," Perencevich wrote in the email.
He added, "Anything less than a statewide mask mandate if you are out of your home with fines, closing bars and indoor restaurants, cancelling all after-school activities, closing schools and banning gatherings outside your family will not be effective in bending the curve and saving our hospitals. It is lipstick on a pig."
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Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, called Reynolds' new orders "a step in the right direction" but worried they'd confuse Iowans trying to do the right thing.
"She's inching toward a mask mandate without calling it such," Tucker Reinders wrote in an email. "It would be much simpler, and easier to comply, if she would just go ahead and listen to the public health experts and issue a statewide mask mandate. We are in the most critical phase of the pandemic, and with winter approaching and holiday gatherings being planned, there is no room for ambiguity."
Clear direction via a statewide mask mandate would both protect Iowans' health and keep businesses open, she said.
"The best way to fight both the pandemic and pandemic fatigue is with strong leadership," she wrote, using the same language as Reynolds did — pandemic fatigue — when the governor explained the need for the new rules Tuesday morning.
More than 1,800 Iowans have died from the disease since March. It would have been the No. 4 leading cause of death in the state in 2017, shows the most recent data available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of deaths is ahead of Alzheimer's disease, accidents, stroke, diabetes and the seasonal flu and pneumonia.
Masks not required in schools; more schools moving online
Several schools and districts in Iowa, including Des Moines Public Schools, have received waivers from the state to hold all classes remotely for two weeks. Other metro districts similarly are seeking state permission to switch to online-only instruction.
Reynolds specified on Tuesday that her proclamation does not mandate masks in schools. She said her office had already given schools officials incentives to require masks when it adjusted state guidance to say that people no longer must go into a 14-day quarantine after having close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus if both people were wearing masks during the encounter.
But Iowa State Education Association president Mike Beranek noted that according to the organization's data nearly four in 10 Iowa school districts do not require masks. He said many schools have more than 25 students per classroom.
The state requires that at least 50% of classes be provided in person unless schools receive a state waiver to move to online-only instruction.
"Instead of continuing to make it difficult to keep our schools safe, the governor should mandate masks and lift the waiver requirement through the end of winter break," he said in a statement.
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Des Moines Register reporters Tony Leys and Brianne Pfannenstiel contributed
Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or at 515-284-8361.
Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.