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Supervisors mull alternative to mask ordinance

Mask petitioner confronts supervisors on lack of action

A small business owner who started a petition for a mask mandate in Fort Dodge and Webster County posed challenges to Webster County Supervisors Tuesday that have, until now, never been considered publicly in the pandemic.

Approaching 700 signatures on her Change.org petition, Megan Secor requested that county messaging and actions reflect a more serious commitment to fighting COVID-19 as the rampaging virus brings new surges of case numbers that are now threatening to overwhelm hospital capacities in Fort Dodge and other cities around the state.

“I’m speaking out as a citizen because I don’t feel safe to go about in our community,” Secor said over Zoom with her infant in arms. “The (case) numbers are rising very steadily because we aren’t doing anything in our community to take care of this. … You need to step up and take care of this.”

As in many parts of the state, the proportion of those tested getting positive COVID-19 results in Webster County has surged to record levels in recent weeks. The positivity rate is an indicator used by public health experts and epidemiologists to determine how quickly the virus is spreading.

On Monday, Webster County Public Health asked those receiving recent positive results to call them for contact tracing if it hasn’t already been initiated, even though it’s usually the other way around. WCPH said the standard wait time of a few days between testing and results reporting in the state system could make the virus’ spread even more potent as contacts of a larger number of patients go about for days without knowing they’ve been exposed.

And even if a hospital has the bed capacity for patients, it’s becoming more apparent that hospital staff – often battling the virus or quarantined themselves – is insufficient to staff the beds in the hospital.

After a recent plea signed by public officials begged Webster County residents to wear masks, refrain from large social gatherings and follow other long-professed virtues of pandemic safety, Supervisor Mark Campbell told The Messenger that supervisors had inquired about the possibility of a mask ordinance through legal counsel.

Though legal interpretations from Iowa’s Attorney General indicated a mask ordinance would not be the “correct vehicle” to mandate mask use in Webster County, County Attorney Darren Driscoll said another alternative remained.

The county’s Board of Public Health could pass a resolution (legally distinct from an ordinance) that county supervisors could support with their own resolution. Then, enforcement becomes the issue. Driscoll said the governor’s office doesn’t think such resolutions are enforceable.

“That’s a gray area,” he said.

In legal text delineating the issue, there is no specific penalty section on a public health entity’s ability to impose fines.

But those looking for a mask mandate aren’t looking for fines, Secor said. They’re just looking for action that’s more than lip service.

“I’m really shocked personally to see that not everyone is wearing a mask at the meeting right now, in close quarters,” Secor said to supervisors Tuesday, after Campbell’s signature appeared on a news release from various officials asking the public to wear masks at all times in public.

“I’m not looking to penalize people for not wearing a mask, I’m looking for them to understand just how serious of a problem it is,” she said.

Dr. Megan Srinivas, a Fort Dodge physician, said that places with mask mandate messaging, even local ones, see a significant increase in mask use.

“Nobody wants to be in violation of rules once they’re aware of them,” said Srinivas, an infectious diseases specialist and translational health policy research fellow at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.

Secor said that it “doesn’t make sense” to place the burden of asking the public to wear masks on small businesses, where she said owners often get push back from customers since the ask is not a rule or law.

“That endangers workers lives,” she said.

At least one supervisor, Niki Conrad, supported the move.

“Paying lip service doesn’t fix the problem,” she said. “We need to have a strong statement. I would be in support of this resolution because I think we’re failing our people and we need to do everything we possibly can. We cannot say we’ve done everything we can if we haven’t done this yet.”

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