Opinion

Capitol Ideas: Unmasked rally sets uneasy tone for Iowa Legislature

Steve Rowland speaks Jan. 11 as protesters gather in the Iowa Capitol rotunda to voice their opposition to mask mandates
Steve Rowland speaks Jan. 11 as protesters gather in the Iowa Capitol rotunda to voice their opposition to mask mandates. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — As opening days go, it could have been better. Or safer, at the least.

The first day of the Iowa Legislature’s 2021 session one week ago featured the normal opening-day remarks from both Republican and Democratic leaders. But most noteworthy about Day 1 was the public rally with hundreds of people packed into the Iowa Capitol rotunda to protest mask-wearing and other emergency public health orders.

There was nothing illegal about the rally and it was peaceful.

But that made it no less irresponsible and dangerous. It’s no stretch to imagine it could, ultimately, turn deadly.

COVID-19 still is sweeping through Iowa. The disease appears to not be running as rampant as it was during the peak surge in November and December, but the two-week averages for cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain higher than they were at any point of the pandemic before that surge.

As of Sunday, 4,323 people in Iowa have died from COVID-19. The state has surpassed 300,000 cases over the course of the pandemic.

Infectious disease and public health experts are in near-unanimous agreement that wearing face coverings and keeping 6 feet of distance from others are among the best ways to slow the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Neither of those things were taking place at that rally on the opening day of the legislative session.

Of course, that was the point. Those people were there to protest public health measures that are designed to keep them and their loved ones as safe as possible.

Rally cries of “Freedom!” rang out, leaving one to wonder about the freedom to walk through a public space without fear of contracting a deadly virus.

Regardless of any philosophical debate, the rally was dangerous. That many people packed shoulder-to-shoulder, none of their faces covered, all indoors, is basically the perfect way to enable the virus’ spread.

And if anybody was unknowingly (or knowingly, for that matter) infected, it’s possible — borderline likely — that they spread that virus to dozens of others. And if that happened, the virus could eventually reach someone who will have a hard time fighting it — or even die because of it.

Obviously the hope is that does not happen. But it’s a real and frightening possibility.

The rally, had it been held at a venue other than the Capitol, would have violated the state’s current emergency public health orders.

In Iowa, people are required to wear face coverings while in public, inside and near others for at least 15 minutes. As masks mandates go, it’s not the most stringent.

But state lawmakers have avoided even that. They are allowed to establish guidelines that govern the Iowa Capitol building. And Republicans, who hold majorities in the Iowa Legislature and thus set the rules, have declined to require face masks inside the Capitol. Yet coats and ties remain required in the House and Senate chambers.

Republican Statehouse leaders have said they are strongly recommending that legislators wear masks. And many, maybe even most, did so during the first week.

Adherence to public health recommendations has sadly, but perhaps predictably, become political over the course of the pandemic.

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So at the end of the first week, it is difficult to say the Iowa Capitol is a safe place, from a public health perspective.

It certainly was not on that first day. Let us hope and pray there are no fatal consequences.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Mondays in The Gazette. His email is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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