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No mask, no service

New public health regulation could provide more teeth for enforcement

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Robby Allen, of Fort Dodge, dons a mask outside of Tobacco Outlet Grocery Plus on Thursday. A new mask mandate passed by the Board of Health on Thursday includes civil penalty provisions for businesses that allow customers to enter without masks. The mandate will be sent to the Webster County Board of Supervisors for final approval.

After critiques that the Fort Dodge and state mask mandates had no mechanism for enforcement, the Webster County Board of Public Health passed a regulation Thursday that could implement penalties for businesses that allow customers to enter without face coverings.

The measure passed 3-1 with only Supervisor Mark Campbell, who serves on the board, dissenting. Voting in favor were members Luke Becker, Supervisor Nick Carlson and Dr. Kelli Wallace, medical director of Webster County Public Health (WCPH).

The measure will only go into effect if Webster County Supervisors pass a resolution approving of it. The measure is anticipated to appear on the agenda for their next meeting Tuesday.

Several members of the public, some with expertise on the matter with regards to public health, spoke in favor during the virtual Thursday meeting. Two characterized the measure as a burden on businesses already muddling through a tepid economy.

“A face covering is one tool to mitigate (COVID-19) and slow the spread down,” said Julie Thorson, CEO of Friendship Haven. “I understand (enforcement is) a headache and could cause issues, but that pales in comparison – I’m sorry to be so dramatic — to saving lives.”

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Megan Secor, drafter of a mask petition that helped mask mandates gain traction with the Fort Dodge City Council and Webster County Board of Health, stands in front of signs encouraging mask use at Webster County Public Health's office.

The Iowa Department of Public Health notes that Friendship Haven has had 31 cases of the virus in a recent outbreak, with 10 recoveries so far. Several other nursing homes have experienced outbreaks in the county since March.

The new regulation stipulates that all members of the public must wear a face covering in most public places, including outside, with some exceptions. Businesses that do not enforce the measure would be subject to a fine of up to $750 for the first offense and up to $1,000 for subsequent offenses.

The initial draft of the rule marked civil penalties for the civil infraction at $750 and $1,000, respectively, before Campbell motioned to add the words “up to” before each number. County Attorney Darren Driscoll and board members agreed that the amendment would give more discretion to law enforcement and magistrate court judges while sending the stronger message that advocates have been seeking in the midst of a public health crisis.

“(Mask mandates are) the strongest thing you can do to prevent unnecessary loss of life in our country,” said Dr. Megan Srinivas, infectious diseases specialist and member of a team working on public education and messaging for one COVID-19 vaccine.

As of Thursday, 39 people have been killed by COVID-19 and over 4,000 have been infected in the county.

Srinivas said more than 50% of transmission comes from asymptomatic people who could prevent spread by wearing a mask, meaning the majority of people spreading the virus have no idea they have it.

Citing a study with Goldman Sachs estimates, published by Forbes in June, she said a meager 15% increase in mask use benefits the national economy by $1 trillion. Simply put, the study shows that mask mandates lead to a decrease in COVID-19 cases, which leads to greater consumer confidence and spending.

“It’s not health care versus the economy,” Srinivas said. “It’s actually helping the economy by attending to our health care needs.”

Even with that information, business owners have mixed feelings.

Megan Secor, co-owner of Soldier Creek Winery, said the county protection is needed with teeth to enforce the regulation that protects her customers, her family and her employees.

“I would prefer to have my community well and healthy and alive,” she said. “That would be better for my business, myself and my community.”

Another small business employer said the mandate would be helpful, too. After working 27 days this month to help cover staff absences, Amy Von Bank said an outbreak in her building could force her to require that employees work, even if positive for COVID-19.

Others said business has been slow enough as it is without yet another regulation upsetting the delicate balance.

“It’s hard to police every (customer) and be the police (with multiple customers at once),” said Jim Bird, owner of several local restaurants. “If it gets more and more cumbersome, there will be shutdowns.”

He said the last month under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ limited mask mandate has been rough. The local regulation in question would not change requirements for restaurants: customers would be required to mask up to walk to their table and go to the restroom, but would be able to take it off once they’re seated to eat or drink.

But for some local consumers, going out to eat or even buying groceries inside is a risk they’re not willing to take when coronavirus cases spiral out of control. Some argue that their rights to liberty and happiness in the small social things taken for granted have been infringed by others who don’t care for the inconvenience of a mask.

“I see lists of my friends. I see people I know in the community that have it and have been hospitalized. It’s scary,” said Fort Dodge resident Carol Barber, who has been anxiously browsing through obituaries for names she knows. “I haven’t been inside a store since the beginning of March.”

As she orders her groceries online and for curbside pickup, she said those refusing to wear a mask “basically penalizes (those of) us trying to do the right thing.”

With questions of how to give teeth to the mandates some have called ineffective, several said that shifting the penalties to businesses is the best approach to avoid another burden on law enforcement officers that fines on individuals might create.

Both Driscoll and county law enforcement agreed that business owners acting in good faith would not be penalized – an impromptu, unmasked customer they didn’t notice won’t cost them $750 – and that hefty fines would only be targeted at those flouting the new regulation.

“Not putting an undue burden on law enforcement was the thinking behind (business penalties),” Driscoll said. “Since the main crux of this is gatherings mostly in businesses … making it business specific would be a good tool, one of the most effective tools, instead of going after individual violators.”

With a new public health hotline just for mask questions and no need to call the police for someone just walking down the street, the drafters of the rule felt it would alleviate the burden.

The county regulation also solves one exception in the state’s mask mandate that says one must be within six feet of someone else for at least 15 minutes before the requirement kicks in, which Driscoll said “almost consumed the mask mandate.”

Sheriff Jim Stubbs called the move “a good idea,” saying he didn’t believe it would burden law enforcement.

Stubbs and Sheriff-elect Luke Fleener said it would be primarily about educating others.

“The civil penalty is the way to go,” Stubbs said. “It’s not so much who you’re going to penalize, it’s how we get people to understand (masks are) a necessity.”

“Our job is to enforce, but fortunately we do have discretion, similar to speeding tickets,” Fleener said, calling penalties a “last resort.”

Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter declined to comment before further review of the rule.

Though no language specifies when the mandate would be dismantled, the Board of Health speculated that the positivity rate, an indicator of how fast the virus is spreading, would be a promising indicator. Currently north of 20%, member Linda Opheim said it would be ideal to see it drop to 10 or 15%.

“It can’t wait,” Carlson said of the mandate, as Christmas approaches and pandemic statistics paint a foreboding winter ahead.

Mask mandate

Where masks would be required:

• Grocery stores, pharmacies and retail stores

• Common areas of businesses open to the public.

• County buildings.

• Public settings not part of one’s residence.

• Outdoors, unless a minimum of six feet distance is maintained from others at all times.

• Public transportation and private car services including taxis, ride share and carpooling.

Where masks would not be required:

• In a personal vehicle.

• While a person is at home.

• While exercising at moderate or high intensity, such as jogging and biking.

• While seated at a food establishment in the process of eating or drinking.

• While obtaining a service that requires temporary removal of a face covering.

• When federal or state law prohibits wearing a face covering or requires its removal.

Who would not be required to wear masks:

• Children younger than 3.

• Anyone with a medical condition, such as oxygen therapy or a ventilator, that would be impeded by wearing a face mask. Dr. Kelli Wallace, medical director for Webster County Public Health, noted there are “truly very few valid exemptions” for masks.

• Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or unable to remove their face covering without assistance.

• Athletes participating in sporting or recreational events.

• Anyone who has been explicitly told by a medical, legal or behavioral health professional not to wear a mask.

• Public safety providers, such as law enforcement and firefighters.

• Anyone removing their face covering to verify their identity for lawful purposes.

If you have questions after reading this list of requirements, call Webster County Public Health’s special mask hotline at 515-227-7155.

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