Polk County officials decline to enact mask mandate, citing legal fears

By: - August 28, 2020 11:24 am

A Des Moines councilman suggested the city consider fining residents who don’t wear masks in public. (Photo courtesy of the State of Utah)

Despite recommendations from health officials, the Polk County Board of Supervisors is declining to declare a mask mandate in the area. The board cited concerns about the legality of enforcing the proclamation.

The supervisors warned that central Iowa area is experiencing “record increases in COVID-19 cases,” and has moved into the “hot spot” categorization defined by the White House Coronavirus Task Force. 

This week, Polk County reached a seven-day average infection rate of over 10%, one of the criteria to be considered a hot spot, according to the White House. The other threshold requires a community to hit a positive case rate of over 100 cases per 100,000 population, which Polk County reached over a month ago.

As of Friday, Polk County is at a 10.4% positivity rate, according to the state’s COVID-19 site.

The Polk County Board of Health Advisory Committee recommended the supervisors issue a mask mandate. But Gov. Kim Reynolds has repeatedly said local municipalities do not have the authority to enforce it without her approval. 

“I’m going to continue to strongly encourage Iowans to wear face coverings, especially when they can’t social distance, and do the responsible thing. And I think that ultimately will go further and … it’s not enforceable,” Reynolds said Thursday. “You just see it over and over and over, when somebody says that they are issuing a mask mandate, almost within the same paragraph they say they’re not going to enforce it.”

Because she has an emergency disaster proclamation in place, Reynolds said orders from cities must align with hers. Reynolds has repeatedly declined to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying it’s difficult to enforce and she trusts in Iowans’ personal responsibility. 

On Thursday, she closed down bars again in six Iowa counties, due to growing COVID-19 numbers from young adults, Reynolds said.

“Until a vaccine is approved and becomes widely available, masks are one of the only tools that we have to help contain local outbreaks and the uncontrolled community spread that we are experiencing right now,” said Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy in a news release. “It is both unfortunate and discouraging that we are unable to adopt a mask mandate at this time.”

Several cities have decided to move forward with their own mask mandates however, saying Iowa Code gives them the local authority to enforce them.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie issued a face-covering mandate this week, requiring people within city limits to wear a mask if they’re unable to stay more than six feet apart. His emergency declaration also requires businesses to decline service to customers who choose not to wear a mask.

Cownie said he believes Iowa Code gives him the authority to issue an emergency proclamation, in light of the growing COVID-19 numbers. A portion of Iowa Code states elected officials must work to the best of their ability at keeping their constituents healthy and safe.

“I just think that we have to do everything we can to protect the health and wellbeing of all our citizens,” Cownie said this week. “It’s all of us working together that’s going to help us get over this.”

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