The state of Iowa saw a two-front assault on the state’s mask mandate ban last week.
First, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Dr. Ann Lebo, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, received a letter from President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, expressing concern about Iowa’s ban on mask mandates.
“This State level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department’s) interim final requirements. As you know, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) requires each LEA that receives Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services. (See section 2001(i).) The Department’s interim final requirements clarify that such plan ‘must describe…how [the LEA] will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff and the extent to which it has adopted policies, and a description of any such policies, on each of the following safety recommendations established by the CDC…’ The safety recommendations include “universal and correct wearing of masks,” Cardona wrote.
Reynolds’ said that President Biden’s priorities are misplaced.
“We have a crisis at the border, a disaster in Afghanistan, and inflation is soaring. President Biden is failing on each of these issues, yet he is now launching an attack against governors like myself for trusting our people to decide what’s best for them. The President’s priorities are misplaced. I have had enough, and I know Iowans have too,” she said in a released statement on Thursday. “I’ll continue to do whatever is necessary to defend and preserve the fundamental rights and liberties afforded to any American citizen.”
Reynolds is right. Biden’s priorities are misplaced. His administration has other crises they are handling poorly and should focus on instead. The federal government has no constitutional role dictating to a state whether or not they allow school districts to implement a mask mandate, none.
Also, recommendations are just that recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations do not carry the force of law and the U.S. Department of Education’s “interim final requirements” do not as well.
Cardona’s letter came with a veiled threat. “(The) Department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Iowa is meeting all of its Federal fiscal requirements,” he wrote.
The implied threat is that the Department will yank federal funds if they do not toe the line.
It’s an empty threat, and it should be ignored.
Second, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague announced a mask mandate from August 20 until September 30 (unless extended), defying state law.
Teague’s order includes any indoor or outdoor public setting where residents can’t stay at least six feet apart, public transportation, and private car services.
Teague’s order says Iowa Code Chapter 364 affirms Iowa City’s home rule authority “to exercise any power and perform any function it deems appropriate to protect and preserve the rights, privileges and property of the city or its residents, and improve the peace, safety, health, welfare and convenience of its residents.”
The same chapter also states that a city may exercise power as long as it is “not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly.”
His order is inconsistent with state law. Moreover, it does the exact opposite of what the general assembly passed this spring.
He was free to seek an emergency injunction in the state’s courts but did not. Iowa Code Chapter 364 and the Iowa Constitution do not grant him the authority to ignore state law, a message he would likely hear from the courts as well.
State law only allows a city or county to implement a mask mandate in city or county-controlled buildings, but his order goes further than state law allows and is illegal.
Teague’s order is also literally unenforceable because it doesn’t include an enforcement mechanism.
However, it is also unclear how the state will enforce the mask mandate ban with cities and states.
It’s also important to point out that while the state banned mask mandates, they did not ban masks. Therefore, anyone is free to wear a mask wherever and whenever they wish (including teachers and students).
They can encourage mask use. They can model wearing masks. What they can’t do is impose wearing masks on others. Also, a return to mask mandates undermines efforts to encourage Iowans to be vaccinated. It sends the message vaccines are not effective and a return to pre-vaccine restrictions discourages those who may be on the fence.
The state will never see a 100 percent vaccination rate. COVID-19 will become endemic like other coronaviruses, Iowans will need to learn how to live with it without government mandates and restrictions.
The pandemic opened the door for city, county, and state governments to use broad emergency powers that restricted the rights and liberties of their residents. The mask mandate ban is a necessary step back toward personal liberty and responsibility and aligns with our state motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”