116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Mayor Brad Hart said Thursday at a mayoral candidate forum that he had considered issuing another mask mandate in the city to curb the spread of COVID-19 although the legal grounds to do so are unclear after a new state law bans such local orders.
At a forum at Mount Mercy University’s CRST International Graduate Center, Hart noted that Iowa City schools and the University of Iowa would not follow in Iowa City’s footsteps and require masks on their campuses after Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague last week issued a mask mandate for individuals there to wear face coverings in public settings.
Iowa City officials believed that the city had narrowly followed the letter of a state law passed in May seeking to prevent schools and local governments from adopting such policies. The law bars those entities from requiring an “owner of real property” to enact mask mandates, but Iowa City’s policy requires individuals to wear masks.
Hart said he consulted with the Cedar Rapids Community School District and offered to “take the sword” for a mandate if school officials would follow it.
“They won't do it,” Hart said. “They're too afraid of losing funding, which is nuts, but I understand that. So, I will continue to take advice from our medical community. I wish the governor would give us local control right now with our (case) numbers going back up, and with school starting, I would issue another mayor's mask mandate if I could.”
At a Cedar Rapids school board meeting Monday, board president Nancy Humbles said there was no doubt that breaking the state law would result in consequences for funding and possibly professional licenses, but that it is clear board members support federal guidelines for mask-wearing.
Hart noted he issued a local mask mandate last September as COVID-19 cases spiked in the area and hospitals became overwhelmed, despite guidance from Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General saying municipalities lacked the legal authority to make such an order.
Hart’s election challengers — Amara Andrews, a TrueNorth executive and Advocates for Social Justice vice president, and Women Lead Change Chief Executive Officer Tiffany O’Donnell — also participated in the forum, which was hosted by the Professional Women’s Network of Eastern Iowa.
The three candidates are all vaccinated and said they support local control to make decisions about handling the pandemic. However, Andrews was more in line with Hart on her willingness to issue a mask mandate, while O’Donnell said she supported individual freedom to allow people to decide.
Andrews said she would let expert opinions guide her and told The Gazette she would have issued a mask mandate earlier than Hart had last fall, which she said came “late.” She said current case numbers may be high enough to warrant another mandate.
“When the governor or another elected official is posing things that I think aren't best for our community, I would advocate for what is best, and who I would look to for guidance in this situation would be the doctors and nurses and scientists who are actually taking care of the people who are dying every day from this awful virus,“ Andrews said during the forum.
O’Donnell said she envisioned clear criteria that would let the community know how decisions surrounding any potential mandate would be made before the situation becomes a public health crisis.
“I think any mandate is a last resort,” O’Donnell said. “I firmly believe that individuals can make the best decisions for themselves when they’re given good information.”
The Gazette asked O’Donnell whether there is a point since the onset of the pandemic where she would have felt the need to issue a mask mandate.
O’Donnell replied that she would want to set a clear road map to avoid surprising the community should she issue a mask mandate. She said she wanted to look forward, seeing what metrics medical experts would use to support issuing such an order.
The highly contagious delta variant has caused a sudden surge in infections in Linn County and around Iowa in recent weeks, prompting a spike in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. Those hospitalized are predominantly not vaccinated, according to state officials.
Officials with Cedar Rapids hospitals and Linn County Public Health earlier this week pleaded with eligible residents to get vaccinated. They also encouraged people to wear masks in indoor public settings and avoid crowded gatherings. Virus cases are rising at a pace that could trigger UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s and Mercy Medical Center to redirect resources to care for COVID-19 patients as they did in the fall and spring of 2020, officials said this week.
Candidates also responded to questions from a moderator about issues including pay equity for women, addressing poverty, proactive emergency preparation, attracting and retaining young professionals and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion.
Andrews emphasized a need to break down barriers and make opportunities accessible and inclusive for all, and said listening would be the key to ensuring residents’ voices are heard to make the changes they desire.
Hart said he felt uniquely qualified when he first ran for mayor as a longtime community volunteer and leader of dozens of organizations, where he honed his leadership skills, and became an analytical problem-solver through his career as a business lawyer.
Now he has been the mayor since 2018 and led through the pandemic and recovery from last summer’s derecho, and touted his record on those fronts as well as with 2008 flood recovery with acceleration of the permanent Flood Control System of levees, walls and gates to protect the city.
O’Donnell spoke of the need for a vibrant downtown and riverfront along with other amenities to attract people, and said she would promote Cedar Rapids as a powerhouse within and beyond the Corridor to the rest of Iowa.
The three will face off in the Nov. 2 local election. O’Donnell is the only candidate who has filed nomination papers to be on the ballot so far, but candidates have until Sept. 16 to do so.
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