‘A political thing’: How mask mandates became a defining issue in Iowa

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DUBUQUE COUNTY, IOWA — People in this heartland community say they never wanted, or even expected, to wrestle with the proposed mask mandate that’s dividing their county, which is now reeling from one of the nation’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks.

But that was before Vice President Mike Pence in June punted questions about mask mandates to state leaders, touting “the genius of America is the principle of federalism.” Then Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds vowed in August and September that she would never order universal masking despite doctors’ pleas, with the GOP governor claiming a mask mandate was a “feel-good” measure that wouldn’t actually save lives.

So a debate that once gripped the White House has ended up here, nestled beside corners of Illinois and Wisconsin — and it has animated the politics of a state that was thought to be in the bag for President Donald Trump but now appears to be a seesaw battle, with Trump making a last-minute visit to Dubuque on Sunday.

The dispute has reached the most literal of grassroots — a rural county where a retiree from the nearby John Deere factory has spent months battling with an electric utility project manager, through Zoom calls and open letters, over whether the county should order nearly 100,000 residents to wear face coverings.

“We feel that a County Wide Mask Mandate is reasonable and necessary to protect the health of all citizens within Dubuque County,” the retiree, Tom Bechen, who chairs the county’s all-volunteer board of health, wrote to the county’s three elected supervisors last week — launching yet another gambit to win them over. Since Bechen’s board began pushing the supervisors to adopt a mask mandate on Aug. 5, the county’s confirmed Covid-19 cases have more than tripled and deaths doubled.

But Bechen — who often appears for county Zoom meetings in front of rows of diecast John Deere trucks and other model vehicles, touting federal health guidance — has been repeatedly overruled by the supervisors.

Instead, two of the three supervisors have sided with the utility manager, Wayne Kenniker, who also holds a part-time role as mayor of Sageville, Iowa, after winning the job thanks to a single vote in a 14-13 race last year. Kenniker and more than a dozen other small town mayors across Dubuque County have banded together to cast doubt on the legal authority of a mask mandate and the health board’s own procedures, warning that it would undermine the so-called “Iowa Nice” philosophy that they said pervaded the county.

“[W]e cannot support this proposed resolution,” the mayors wrote to the supervisors on Aug. 26. “Doing so would demonstrate a use of questionable authority and it would undermine the core values that define rural Iowa.”

In an interview, Kenniker said he worried that a mask mandate would eventually lead to a vaccine mandate too. He also cast doubt on the county’s official Covid-19 data, claiming the figures were inflated to inspire fear and even make Trump look bad.

“The headlines are always the worst information possible,” said Kenniker, who added that he’s been reading up on the Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial statement supported by Trump-aligned scientists that calls for young and healthy Americans to return to school and work. Kenniker also plans to vote for Trump.

The White House’s decision to punt on mask mandates has left major coronavirus debates ultimately resting on people like Bechen and Kenniker — who have little or no formal health training, may be working as volunteers or part-time and admit to scrounging the internet as they try to shape what experts portray as life-and-death choices.

And rather than empower these local officials, the Trump administration has instead succeeded in further dividing them. Democrats are increasingly campaigning on the issue, hoping to punish Reynolds and other Republicans for the GOP’s resistance to a mask mandate, even as neighboring Democrat-led states have imposed one. Joe Biden has embraced the idea of a national mask mandate, despite ongoing questions about whether a president would have legal authority to impose one.

Meanwhile, Kenniker and his fellow mayors have closely strategized with state Rep. Shannon Lundgren, a Republican who chairs the Iowa legislature’s health care committee, on how best to stall the Dubuque County effort. Trump himself continues to jab at the idea of wearing masks, further fueling skepticism among his supporters that they’re even necessary, particularly in rural communities.

Caught in the middle are Bechen and his board of health colleagues, who have been bombarded with hundreds of emotional appeals for and against the mandate, including complaints organized by a new anti-mask group, “UnMask DBQ.”

“I don’t know how it got to be a political thing … you just listen to the experts,” lamented Roy D. Buol, the Democratic mayor of the city of Dubuque, where more than half of county residents reside — and which did impose its own, separate mask mandate in August.

“I’m not judging the governor or board of supervisors” for failing to enact their own mandates, Buol added. “Covid’s going to do that.”

Dubuque leaders are now bracing for Trump’s rally, which is expected to lead to large crowds and could further spread the virus. Trump is set to speak at the city-owned airport on Sunday afternoon, but since the airport itself is located in the county — which lacks a mask mandate — airport officials on Saturday said that face coverings will only be recommended, not required like in the city. The decision has sparked an outcry on local social media.

“In response to questions about requiring face coverings at events hosted by the DBQ Airport, the airport is outside the city limits and city ordinances does [sic.] not apply,” airport director Todd Dalsing wrote in an email to Dubuque’s city manager on Saturday that was shared with POLITICO.

One of Dubuque County’s two supervisors who previously voted against the mask mandate said she wasn’t opposed to wearing masks — just the byzantine way that the mandate decision had fallen to her and her colleagues.

“Does it make logical sense that 9 volunteers on a Board of Health can write a regulation that controls 100,000 people?” county supervisor Ann McDonough, a registered Democrat, wrote in an email exchange with POLITICO.

“Our entire County Health Department is 3 full time people and one part time clerical position,” McDonough added. “I ask citizens that instead of yelling at your neighbors, please contact the Governor and urge her to take action mandating face masks. The science is clear.”

Health experts have stressed that universal face coverings could save tens of thousands of lives by curbing transmission of Covid-19. Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci this week joined that chorus, acknowledging that.

“States should be able to choose how to enforce a mandate,” Gottlieb wrote in the Wall Street Journal, adding that the goal should be to make masks a cultural norm. “There are lots of things we do because there is a community expectation of civil behaviors [like] no shoes, no service. Clean up after your dog.”

The impact of a mask mandate could be especially significant in Dubuque County, which this past week reported a rate of about 92 new infections per 100,000 population — nearly 10 times higher than the current rate of spread in Washington, D.C.

In an ironic twist — given Trump’s resistance to mask mandates — the White House’s own coronavirus task force has repeatedly encouraged Iowa to implement one.

“Establish a statewide mask mandate,” the task force recommended in a report that the Iowa Department of Health made available on Sept. 16. “COVID-19 is being brought into nursing homes through community transmission.”

But the recommendation is toothless — and in Dubuque County, fruitless so far, even though Bechen and his board of health colleagues cite the White House guidance at every turn.

Anger and death threats

Dubuque isn’t the only Midwestern municipality divided over a mask mandate. Officials, volunteers and protesters in dozens of towns and counties in the heartland have engaged in similar clashes, sometimes to shocking or concerning ends — including when the mayor of Wichita, Kan., faced an alleged threat on his life in October for backing a mask mandate.

Even with that resistance, those cities and counties are increasingly opting for mask mandates, particularly as the daily Covid-19 case count continues to rise and the prospect of a winter surge becomes increasingly likely. One of those places is Harrison County, Iowa, a GOP-dominated county on the western edge of the state, which on Thursday approved a county-wide mask mandate in a 2-1 vote.

“It’s really a hot issue, and it is hard,” John Straight, one of the Harrison County supervisors who voted for the mask mandate, told a reporter, adding that he hoped the mask mandate would help contain his county’s rapid rise in coronavirus cases.

But many places remain holdouts: According to a tracker kept by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, 17 states have no statewide masking order in effect, including GOP-led states like North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, where the outbreak is hitting hardest right now.

That’s proven fertile ground for Democrats campaigning in those states and particularly in Iowa, who say that federalism can’t stop a highly contagious virus from jumping between borders.

“I think if we had a cohesive, thoughtful, national approach — instead of a hodgepodge of different state policies and actions — we’d be a much healthier country,” asserted state Rep. Lindsay James, a Democrat who represents part of Dubuque in the Iowa legislature and blamed Trump and Reynolds for not doing more to encourage masks earlier in the year.

“The failure of the president has impacted the state of Iowa,” James added. “The failure of the governor not to enact a statewide mask mandate has left many different parts of the city and the county really struggling to know how to handle a global pandemic.”

Some Republicans have indeed soured on Reynolds over her handling of the pandemic, The New York Times reported last week. Reynolds’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment about her approach to Covid-19 and masking.

But the pressure is such that several Democrats in Iowa are choosing to sit out the public fight over the mask mandate, seemingly sensitive to the difficult local politics in an election year. Dubuque County supervisor Dave Baker, who has voted against the mask mandate and is up for reelection this week, did not respond to repeated questions about his stance on the mandate. Baker is in what’s seen as a close race against a retired law enforcement officer who’s running as a Republican and has opposed the mandate.

Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat who represents Dubuque County in U.S. Congress and is locked in a close race for reelection, has been tight-lipped about her stance too. A spokesperson declined to clarify Finkenauer’s position on mask mandates and the recent board disputes.

Finkenauer’s challenger Ashley Hinson, a GOP state representative, “believes these decisions are best made by local officials, not with state or federal mandates,” said a campaign spokesperson, echoing the party line.

Residents who spoke to POLITICO were closely split on the mandate, although their positions were deeply felt.

“I support the mask mandate,” said 17-year-old Sadie Richter, relating the story of how her uncle with Down syndrome became seriously ill after seemingly being infected by his roommate’s caregiver, leading to his hospitalization. “We have to protect vulnerable populations,” Richter added. “It was a pretty scary situation.”

“I support masks. I don’t support a mask mandate — too many regulations leads to rebellion,” countered one masked woman working in a store on the town’s Main Street, who first volunteered her name before changing her mind a few minutes later and requesting anonymity.

“I don’t want people to stalk me on the Internet, come in here and yell at me,” she said.

Calls for a firmer stance

Public health experts in Iowa and beyond insist that the complications of handing off mask mandate debates to local officials were predictable and preventable, and that the White House should have taken a firmer stance all along.

“We urge you to publicly issue a strong federal directive calling for mask requirements in all states,” the Infectious Diseases Society of America wrote to Pence, the White House coronavirus task force chair, on Aug. 5. “Strong and consistent national policy and messaging makes a difference.”

But Pence continues to defer on the idea, even as he’s extricated himself from many coronavirus-related duties in the weeks leading up to the election.

A Pence spokesperson said that the White House was available “as a resource” to provide expertise, but that decisions about mask mandates were best handled on a state and local level.

Back in Dubuque County, more than 100 days after the health board first began deliberating a mask mandate — and with no end in sight — frustrations at the board are beginning to boil over. Attendees at the Oct. 27 hearing on Zoom took turns airing a list of complaints and calling for immediate action.

One board member, local nurse Katie Jones, complained that a supervisor had instructed the group to work on “education” with the small-town mayors who had spent weeks opposing the health board’s plan.

“I feel like we have all the education,” Jones said. “Unless you’ve been sleeping this whole time … everybody knows everything, and if the small-town mayors still need assistance with that, that’s something that should have been addressed a long time ago.”

Still, the board hammered out a new proposal for a mask mandate that would weaken its enforcement requirements, such as letting businesses decide whether they want to serve someone without a mask. That proposal will soon be taken up for public comment and an eventual vote, although there are no indications that the county supervisors who have rejected previous proposals will choose to approve this one.

“I have doubts, but I sincerely hope that this attempt succeeds,” Bechen told POLITICO.

“In the absence of a national or state mandate this has fallen on our Board of Health,” Bechen added. “I don’t believe that is how it should be. But we now have to deal with it.”

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