Reynolds can and should allow local leaders to require masks in public

Gov. Kim Reynolds takes off her mask as she walks to the lecturn to speak at her news conference on July 7, 2020. (Screen shot from governor's livestream)

Gov. Kim Reynolds says she trusts Iowans to make the right decisions to avoid spreading COVID-19.  But she apparently does not trust the local elected officials chosen by these very same Iowans to lead their communities. That attitude is endangering the health and lives of Iowans.

Reynolds declared last week that local government officials do not have the authority to require residents to wear face masks in public. She pointed to some informal opinions from the attorney general’s office to say that because she has an emergency disaster proclamation in effect, any local ordinances or orders must be consistent with her order.

“According to the statute, if the governor has a declaration in place, if the county declaration isn’t … consistent with that, then it’s not — it’s not appropriate, and it’s not in effect,” Reynolds said at a news conference Tuesday.

That stance shut down a local mask mandate proposed by the mayor of Muscatine. The Scott County Board of Supervisors voted to “strongly encourage” mask-wearing after the governor shot down a proposed mandate. Scott County has seen a sharp spike in cases since late June; Muscatine County cases are also on the rise.

The Iowa Department of Education last month issued guidelines for schools that actively discouraged required mask-wearing by students and staff.

What Reynolds didn’t mention last week was that she can provide that authority to local officials if she wants.

Assistant Attorney General Heather Adams wrote to the Iowa Department of Public Health’s deputy director (emphasis added):

“While cities and counties have police powers to protect the health and safety of their citizens, the state has the authority to declare and coordinate the response to a public health disaster. This includes the power of the governor to sub-delegate administrative authority to cities and counties, including the power to restrict movement within communities by these local authorities. This power also would allow the governor discretion to retain such powers and not delegate this authority to cities or counties.”

Some Republican governors who have refused to mandate masks statewide have allowed local leaders to put rules in place.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to make masks mandatory but he has allowed mayors to impose mask-wearing orders. The same is true in Arizona. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has not challenged local leaders who have required businesses to enforce mask-wearing among employees and customers, according to Stateline.

Stateline also reported that most states at least require face coverings in specific places like barber shops, salons or retail stores. Iowa is one of three states that do not, along with Montana and Oklahoma.

Reynolds doesn’t seem to be as anti-mask as some Republicans. At the same news conference on Tuesday, she and every other state employee in the room were wearing masks except when they were speaking. That’s a change from the past few weeks, when Reynolds held bill-signings at which no one except reporters were wearing masks.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs a bill on June 25, 2020, at Associated Building Contractors in Grimes. The new law eases professional license restrictions for new Iowans and people with criminal convictions. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The governor has repeatedly encouraged Iowans to do their part to prevent the virus spread. She said it again Tuesday: “People need to practice personal responsibility. We have said if you can’t social distance, then you need to wear a face covering.”

But she also brings up reasons why she thinks mask mandates are a bad idea: “There’s so many other factors that go into it. You just touched your mask, you just took it off, you know, so then you’re spreading the germs. … If somebody wears the same mask for seven days without appropriately washing it or changing it out, then … is it doing what it’s supposed to be doing? Who’s going to monitor that?”

Let’s get real. No one expects the state (or anyone outside the household) to be in charge of mask laundry. None of those concerns is a reason not to require masks in public. Those are reasons to educate Iowans how to appropriately and safely wear a mask.

The governor doesn’t want to take responsibility. She showed that when she carelessly trusted meatpacking plants and nursing homes that said they had virus mitigation under control, even after it was clear they didn’t.

But if Reynolds doesn’t want the responsibility, she should let local leaders take action on this one issue.  Iowa may not need a statewide mask mandate. But local officials who know their communities and are watching virus cases rise should be allowed to try a mask order.  Otherwise, the state is again going to be faced with widespread business shutdowns, rising unemployment (which is happening already) and an inability to reopen schools in the fall.

If Reynolds is serious about trusting Iowans, she should trust the people they elect to help keep their communities safe.