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Governor’s mask mandate spurs local chain reaction

Reynolds’ new rule still not enough, some say

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Megan Secor, owner of Soldier Creek Winery, has petitioned for a mask resolution in Webster County, citing the burden businesses face when trying to require masks in their own establishments as a frustration without the backing of a higher authority.

A limited mask mandate announced by Gov. Kim Reynolds Monday spurred a chain reaction in Webster County, where some say the new state rule’s exemptions are not reacting strongly enough to a crisis hitting Iowa hard.

Following the governor’s announcement in a sober televised address, Webster County’s Board of Health postponed consideration of a local mask resolution, which was scheduled for Wednesday evening. Their next meeting will not be until early December.

“What we’re hearing from (the health care community and frontline workers) is that they’re screaming for some sort of action,” said Neven Conrad, at-large member of the Fort Dodge City Council, who drafted a city-level mask resolution Wednesday.

The resolution, legally distinct from an ordinance that has been frowned upon by the Iowa Attorney General and Reynolds, is anticipated to appear on the City Council’s Monday agenda.

Though Conrad said a similar action taken at a county or state level would provide more uniformity than a city resolution, he said he doesn’t “necessarily foresee that happening.”

Mayor Matt Bemrich said that the new resolution could present challenges to law enforcement officers already stretched thin and said he has struggled personally with whether such a resolution would be legal or constitutional.

“To ask (law enforcement) to run around and respond to those calls would be very difficult,” Bemrich said. “Probably the biggest issue is what the penalty will be for not wearing (a mask.)”

Conrad, who initially struggled with such concerns, said that similar resolutions passed by neighboring counties like Wright County have received “good response,” according to feedback from law enforcement.

His resolution, modeled after one that Cedar Falls passed earlier this year, would preserve exceptions for situations like sports, but would eliminate ambiguity and confusion Conrad cites in the governor’s new rules, such as an exemption for those who are in public but stay six feet away from others or aren’t within six feet for at least 15 minutes. Exceptions like that, theoretically, mean even a basic public activity like grocery shopping would not require masks if shoppers stayed six feet away from other shoppers or were only in the store for 10 minutes.

With an airborne virus pushing Iowa’s health care resources to the brink, some say that’s not enough.

“You can absolutely catch COVID in 15 minutes inside,” said Megan Secor, citing conclusions widely accepted among epidemiologists.

The owner of Soldier Creek Winery has been petitioning for stronger local action that, at the least, sends more serious public messaging some believe will spur more widespread mask use. As a small business owner, she said the responsibility to enforce masks has been incumbent on her, and has been a difficult thing to enforce with some customers.

“Do we lose that customer? Do we lose that sale? Are we pigeonholing ourselves into a spot of being the bad guy?” she said.

She said government backup, even if not enforced with citations from law enforcement, is necessary to keep businesses and their employees safe, saying an overreliance on “personal responsibility,” a consistent part of the governor’s messaging, has been proven unreliable by the surging number of infections and deaths that continue to break state records.

The timing of local resolutions could be critical as winter and the holiday season sets in, pushing groups inside and compounding with the pressure some families feel to maintain gathering traditions.

“If we can’t have unity on this, we’re just going to keep floundering,” Secor said.

Like others, she wants to get on with her normal life, too. Her six-month old son has not been able to meet his grandparents out of town, and Secor said she felt her personal liberties have been infringed upon by others refusing to wear a piece of cloth over their face.

“At what point do we decide that someone’s personal liberties are more important that someone (else’s) health? At what point did we decide that’s OK?” she said.

Others like County Supervisor Niki Conrad say that mandating masks may be the best way to ensure that other personal, simple liberties once taken for granted stay intact. Niki Conrad has been a vocal supporter of local action on masks.

“The elderly are not allowed visitors in assisted care facilities. Young people are not able to study in person in their classrooms. … Is that freedom?” she said. “For me, wearing a small piece of fabric when I leave my home is a miniscule price to pay so that nurses are spared the trauma of working the COVID floor, or so that paramedics don’t put their lives at risk every time they go on a call, or so that wives can visit their husbands in the nursing home.”

“If we can save one person from a diagnosis or one person from dying from this, then in my mind it’s completely worth it,” Neven Conrad said. “If it fails (to pass City Council), at least it wouldn’t be for a lack of trying.”

The Webster County Board of Health could not be reached for comment by press time.

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