CEDAR RAPIDS — As Linn County emerges as the epicenter of the novel coronavirus spread in Iowa — one of the few states without a formal stay-at-home order — local officials are still exploring whether they can take additional action on their own in hopes of slowing the highly contagious disease.
Groups of 20 or 30 teens and young adults are out until 2, 3 or 4 a.m. gathering at house parties or other locations — failing to abide by social distancing and crowd size guidance, Cedar Rapids Council member Dale Todd said. Council member Ashley Vanorny described a bar where a crowd had gathered on the patio, seemingly sidestepping closure orders.
“The enforcement piece is the last hand we have to play,” Vanorny said. “We’ve seen a sharp increase of cases and now we’ve become first on the letter board. We can’t not act.”
The idea of additional local action comes after the matter was seemingly rendered moot March 26 when Gov. Kim Reynolds said only she has the authority to issue a stay-at-home order.
City leaders are still investigating, but some believe mayors are empowered to either expand on Reynolds’ orders or at least add teeth to them.
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, who has been among the most vocal in calling for a stay-at-home order either statewide or locally, said Monday at a news conference that Iowa Code appears to provide mayors the ability to enact such an order.
“I know mayors around state are working to understand this legal ability as outlined in the Iowa code,” Walker said.
Todd described it as a legal gray area.
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“You look at communities all across the nation doing things, and we are saying, ‘Why can’t we do that?’” Todd asked. “Communities across Eastern Iowa are looking to us for leadership on this issue. We can’t be paralyzed by lack of action from Des Moines or paralyzed by fear over someone taking us to court.”
Council member Scott Overland said, “The efforts of the mayor and council are to get people not following guidelines to comply. We are not looking at closing additional businesses, but some people are not following rules.”
Iowa Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Bayens indicated Monday that law officers will use a three-step approach to enforce the governor’s orders with Iowans who fail to comply. Violators face simple misdemeanor charges.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said Monday he has been in communication with the governor’s office about what actions the city could take. He had planned to make an announcement Monday morning, but that was tabled.
“We will hear what she says in her 11 a.m. news conference, and continue to investigate any actions we believe we can take,” Hart said in a statement released through the city’s media relations office before the governor’s remarks.
At that news conference, Reynolds announced she was ordering additional businesses and attractions closed until at least April 30.
Hart did not respond to subsequent inquiries from The Gazette about whether he was satisfied with those actions.
Cedar Rapids officials, including Hart, were not available for questions or updates at Monday afternoon’s briefing with the area’s key elected and health officials.
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Cedar Rapids officials did not respond to questions about what their research into mayoral powers has yielded.
Linn County continues to lead all counties in Iowa with the number of known COVID-19 cases — 176 reported as of Monday, followed by the more populous Polk County with 125.
During the day Monday, Cedar Rapids extended the closure of its transit service and several municipal facilities, including City Hall, until April 30, and the public library indefinitely.
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