Iowans will be required to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces when they cannot socially distance starting Nov. 17, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Monday night.
The mask requirement was among several new COVID-19 mitigation strategies that Reynolds announced during a live address to Iowans as case counts and hospitalizations have skyrocketed across the state in recent weeks.
“I’m grateful that our children and healthy Iowans have largely been unaffected, but I’m afraid that these mild cases have created a mindset where Iowans have become complacent, where we’ve lost sight of why it was so important to flatten the curve,” she said during a brief address after which she did not take questions.
The governor had long opposed such a mask mandate and had argued that local municipalities did not have the standing to institute their own, though some did, including the City of Dubuque. Dubuque County’s mandate is set to start on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
Reynolds announced a series of measures that went into effect at midnight Monday.
Among those is a requirement that people ages 2 or older wear masks or face coverings while in an indoor public space when they cannot socially distance for 15 minutes or longer.
That measure makes exceptions for groups such as people working alone or in spaces where physical distancing can be maintained, individuals consuming food or drinks while seated at a restaurant or bar, and people engaged in physical exercise.
Reynolds’ proclamation also prohibits social, community, business and leisure gatherings of more than 15 people indoors, including wedding and funeral receptions, family gatherings “and other non-essential gatherings and events where people who do not normally live or work together congregate indoors.” Gatherings of more than 30 people outdoors also are prohibited.
Restaurants and bars must close for in-person consumption at 10 p.m. and remain closed until 6 a.m. Those establishments also must require employees who have direct contact with customers to wear masks, and customers must wear masks when they are not seated at their table.
Bowling alleys, arcades, pool halls, bingo halls and indoor playgrounds are subject to the same restrictions. Customers at casinos and the employees who interact with them also must wear masks.
Reynolds said those measures and others have the potential to make a significant impact in a relatively short period of time.
“That doesn’t mean that these changes will be easy or popular, but they’re necessary if we want to keep our businesses open, our kids in school and our health care systems stable,” she said.
Other measures announced by Reynolds include:
Canceling organized youth and adult sporting events, with the exception of high school, collegiate and professional sports.
Limiting spectators at high school sporting and extracurricular events to two per student and requiring spectators to wear masks.
Reducing inpatient elective procedures by 50%.
She said all of the measures will be reassessed in a week, and additional ones could be added based on trends in hospital capacity.
Slowing the spread
Reynolds’ announcement comes as COVID-19 cases have been skyrocketing locally and around the state.
Iowa’s total case count reached 188,363 at 5 p.m. Monday, an increase of 3,190 over 24 hours prior. The state’s seven-day positivity rate was 50.7% for the week ending on Saturday, according to Johns Hopkins University. Iowa’s total death toll reached 1,991.
Dubuque County had a total of 7,866 cases of 5 p.m. Monday, the seventh-highest county total in the state. The county’s 14-day positivity rate at 5 p.m. was 24.5%, and the death toll stood at 79.
Reynolds said Monday that there have been more than 52,000 new cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks.
“To put that into perspective, we had the same number of cases from the beginning of the pandemic in March to mid-August,” Reynolds said.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations also have been ballooning and are pushing the state’s health care system “to the brink,” according to the governor. One of every four hospital patients in Iowa is someone with COVID-19, and new daily hospitalizations have topped 200, she said.
“That is not sustainable,” Reynolds said. “If our health care system exceeds capacity, it’s not just COVID-19 we’ll be fighting. Every Iowan who needs medical care will be put at risk.”
But the Republican governor’s announcement Monday night was sharply criticized by leading Democrats.
“Governor Reynolds seems shocked that her failed COVID strategy has resulted in thousands of deaths, overcrowded hospitals, unsafe schools and some of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country over the past nine months,” said Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls and Iowa House of Representatives Democratic Leader Todd Prichard in a press release. “Her half-measured attempt at a mask mandate will not be enough to make Iowans safer, especially heading into the holiday season. Her actions today are simply too little, too late. Half-measures will only prolong this pandemic and the suffering of Iowans.”
They argued that Reynolds should have announced a range of more extensive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, including increased testing for “teachers, community college students, public sector workers, staff in crowded or congregate settings, all hospital personnel (and) large private-sector employers;” an expansion of a small business relief grant program; “expanded, strategic use of testing in all 99 counties;” and “ensure all nursing homes, assisted-living and elderly care sites have full testing capacity and are isolating positive staff and residents.”
Mary Rose Corrigan, public health specialist for the City of Dubuque, said members of Dubuque County’s COVID-19 incident management team welcome any measures that will impact public behavior to lessen the spread of the disease.
She said she expects that the new requirements will impact public behavior, but she cautioned that it will take at least a couple of weeks for those changes to affect local case counts and hospitalizations.
“We know that any exposure that has occurred without these measures could result in even more cases because that exposure has already happened,” Corrigan said.
Reynolds on Monday asked residents to work with her, saying that unless Iowans buy into the public health measures, businesses likely will have to close, schools will have to move to online learning, the health care system will fail and the death toll will be even higher.
“I know it’s been a long eight months, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m hopeful, as we all are, that a vaccine will be here soon,” Reynolds said. “But until then, it’s important to step up and slow the spread.”