Most Iowa police not issuing citations in cities with mask ordinances

Iowa State University is encouraging students to wear masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Police departments in cities with mask ordinances have fielded dozens of complaints about people not complying, but it’s unclear whether any law enforcement agency has actually filed any citations or done enforcement so far.

In Des Moines, the police department has received nine calls regarding non-compliance, primarily from convenience stores, said Sgt. Paul Parizek, spokesman for DMPD.

Mayor Frank Cownie issued a citywide mask mandate on Aug. 26, with an emphasis on handing out masks and educating the public instead of issuing citations.

As of Wednesday, Polk County’s infection rate was at 8.7%, according to the state’s COVID-19 site. 

In a letter to police officers following the ordinance, Police Chief Dana Wingert said the “top priority” for officers will be voluntary compliance.

“Officers shall use a high level of discretion while seeking voluntary compliance and provide a free mask to those who need or want one,” Wingert said.

The Ames City Council passed a mask mandate on Sept. 1 and the police department has received three complaints since then. The calls were for a bowling alley, laundromat and private home.

Commander Jason Tuttle said police officers will not issue any citations because there is no fine associated with Ames’ ordinance.

In Story County, the COVID-19 infection rate spiked to 19% as of Wednesday, following the start of classes at Iowa State University.

But even in cities with specific citations, such as Dubuque and Iowa City, the police departments have not invoked any disciplinary action.

The city of Dubuque started enforcing a mask mandate on Aug. 10 after city council approval. Those who violate the ordinance and refuse to wear a face covering could get a $10 fine, which increases to $15 if unpaid after 30 days.

So far, the police department has received 55 calls, primarily from businesses such as restaurants and gas stations, said Lt. Ted McClimon, spokesperson for the Dubuque Police Department.

“We would much rather educate and have voluntary compliance than issuing any citation,” McClimon said.

In Iowa City, there have been 47 mask-related calls since the mayor issued a mandate July 21. The proclamation states not wearing a mask can carry a simple misdemeanor charge, which may require a court appearance and a fine between $65 to $625.

“They’re focusing primarily on education rather than making arrests or citations,” said Rebecca Passavant, a records technician.

While guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for everyone to wear face coverings back in July to reduce the spread of COVID-19, officials in each state have differed on how or even if they want to require masks.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds has refused to impose a statewide order, asserting that local governments also can’t enforce their own mandates without her permission, which she has not granted.

Despite her comments, a growing number of Iowa cities are approving their own mandates, including most recently, Cedar Falls.

Iowa is one of 17 states that does not have a blanket, statewide face-covering mandate, according to AARP.

Some states, like Montana, require a mask inside every building for counties with a high infection rate. In Illinois, masks are required statewide wherever social distancing isn’t possible.

In Dubuque, McClimon said that while people may have “varying opinions” on mask ordinances, for the most part, Iowans agree to wear one when approached by an officer.

“People for the most part are being compliant,” McClimon said. “We’ve handed out a fair amount fo masks when someone wasn’t wearing a mask.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.