It’s time for Iowa business leaders to demand mask mandates

Gov. Kim Reynolds removes her face mask before her news conference on Oct. 7, 2020, in Johnston. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

In a fit of optimism that air travel might eventually be in my future, I decided recently to apply for a trusted traveler designation that minimizes waiting in security lines.

The first step after applying online was attending an appointment to present my identification and get photographed and fingerprinted and pay a fee. That happened at a private office that contracts with the Transportation Security Administration and other government agencies and companies for background checks and other types of screenings.

An email informed me in advance that COVID-19 mitigation procedures were in place and that a face mask was required. But when I approached the reception desk, both of the workers behind the counter were wearing their masks around their necks or dangling off one ear.

One of the women pulled her mask into place before ushering me into a cramped, closed-door room to complete the screening. But I still wondered how many frequent travelers had also passed through that unmasked reception area.

The risk of catching coronavirus was low in my case — I was only there for about 10 minutes —  but I thought it sent a dangerous message to people who presumably will be spending lots of time in planes and airports.

Sending reckless messages seems to be all the rage these days, however. An infected President Trump defiantly ripped his mask off on the way into the White House after a hospital stay for coronavirus. Now, he’s headed to Iowa for what, based on past Trump campaign events, is likely to be a camera- and COVID-friendly, tightly packed, largely maskless rally.

Here in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds was again talking about balancing Iowans’ lives and their livelihoods as hospitalizations and new positive tests soared to record levels and deaths were on the rise. As of Sunday, the state remained in the top 10 hotspots, according to New York Times data. Cases have topped 99,000 since the beginning of the pandemic and the weekly average of new cases is up 11% from two weeks ago. There have been at least 1,460 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, and the weekly average of deaths is up 61 percent from two weeks ago.

Reynolds got defensive last week when a reporter pressed her about why she’s still trusting Iowans to do the right thing when all the evidence seems to show that too many are still not paying attention.

“And you know what?” Reynolds replied, cutting off the reporter. “Do you want to talk about the people who are dying because they delayed care? Do you want to talk about the suicides that have ticked up? Do you want to talk about the kids that aren’t in school? I, you know, we are doing a lot.”

These are all real concerns, to be sure. I’m heartbroken about the toll on Iowans’ mental health and the isolation being forced upon our elderly loved ones in long-term care settings. It’s anguishing to see the loss of jobs and the toll that is taking on so many lives.

But since there are no longer any government orders in place to close businesses or prevent people from seeking routine medical care and the vast majority of school districts are required to hold most classes in person, what Reynolds is really talking about is fear.

“We can’t let COVID-19 dominate our lives,” she said, echoing Trump. “And that’s exactly why we’ve taken the steps we have this last seven months to balance both the lives and livelihoods of Iowans.”

The government isn’t preventing it, so what we’re seeing is many people making individual decisions not to travel, go to movies, eat in restaurants or send kids to in-person school. Why? Reynolds may want to blame media attention to the accelerating virus spread. But the fear also comes from Iowans who look around and see how many in their community are still refusing to wear face coverings while ignoring social-distancing guidelines and gathering in large, closely packed groups.

Getting coronavirus under control is vital to Iowa businesses that need healthy workers and customers who can leave their homes and send their kids to school.  Many businesses are requiring masks in their establishments but that can only do so much to protect employees if the virus is spreading unchecked in the community.

Reynolds’ reasons for refusing to require mask-wearing or allow local officials to do so are wearing increasingly thin.  She points out that some people can’t wear masks. That’s true but not a reason to rule out a mandate. Any requirements can be written to accommodate children under 2 years old and people with relevant respiratory issues. Most of the latter would benefit if the rest of the population were masked.

Reynolds also repeatedly claims that mask mandates aren’t enforceable. But she’s the major reason local mandates aren’t considered enforceable. Other locations have been able to enact public health requirements. And making something mandatory will increase compliance even without a cop on the corner ready to write a ticket.

Mask-wearing, along with social distancing and hand-washing, is one of the simplest, least restrictive and most effective ways to prevent to spread of the virus and it will likely even reduce the severity of the coming flu season.

The only reason not to require masks in public in Iowa is politics. If Iowans want to get this pandemic under control, it’s time for Iowa’s business leaders and others who have the ears of this administration to make mask-wearing their top priority.

Kathie Obradovich
Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.