Hundreds of unmasked people entered the Iowa Statehouse rotunda Monday, the opening day of the new legislative session, to protest mask requirements put in place to protect against COVID-19.
Those protesters were allowed to do so — despite evidence the virus can transmitted by water droplets from a person’s mouth or nose — because leaders of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate said they could not impose a mask mandate at the Capitol.
“We have no way to enforce that,” Speaker of the House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said Jan. 7 during a virtual news conference with the Iowa Capitol Press Association. “Even if we were to say, ‘Everyone in the caucus has to have a mask,’ there’s no way for us to enforce that and say ‘Sorry, you’re not wearing a mask. You can’t come on the floor.’ We don’t have the ability to do that, even with our own members.”
Grassley, who said he is encouraging House members to wear masks when they can’t be at least 6 feet apart, later added: “There’s nothing we can do to stop a member from coming on the floor of the House to take a vote whether … even if they did have a positive case or they chose they were not going to wear a mask.”
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, of Ankeny, echoed Grassley’s position.
The Fact Checker decided to check these statements to see if there was, in fact, any reason legislative leaders could not require masks in the Capitol, which hosts not only lawmakers but staff, lobbyists and visitors.
When asked why Grassley thinks he can’t enforce a mask order, his communications officer said “there is nothing in the Iowa Constitution that allows the Speaker of the House the authority to strip any member of their constitutional duty based on what a representative is wearing or not wearing.”
It’s true there is nothing in the constitution to specifically allow this (we checked, there’s no mention of “masks” in the original 1857 document or the version in Iowa Code), but there doesn’t seem to be anything that prohibits it, either
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“The House and Senate are the ones that make the rules about what can be done inside the Capital,” Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla said.
The State Patrol provides security inside the Statehouse and staffs the visitor entrance, where people must go through a metal detector and, if they have a concealed weapon, show proof of registration, Dinkla said. But the State Patrol does not have any authority to require people to wear masks inside, he said.
“As far as wearing a mask at the Capitol, it’s in the governor’s proclamation that the legislative branch, they do not have to wear face coverings or masks, so those places are exempt,” he said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Nov. 16 proclamation required face coverings for people inside state government buildings when they can’t be 6 feet apart, but excluded buildings under control of the legislative and judicial branches.
The House and Senate do have rules for members, including dress codes. The Senate Rules of Decorum, adopted in 2016, prohibits jeans, T-shirts, halter tops and shorts and requires men to wear a coat and tie inside when the Senate is in session.
The Senate’s sergeant-at-arms enforces the dress code, even keeping spare coats and ties on a rack near the Senate entrance in case someone forgets, according to The Gazette Des Moines Bureau Chief Rod Boshart, who has reported from the Statehouse since 1989.
House rules, adopted in 2019, forbid “jeans of any color without leave of the speaker.”
So what if lawmakers wanted to amend the rules to include masks or other face coverings? Easy. “A motion to change or rescind a standing rule or order of the house requires one day’s notice,” the rules state.
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For national context, the U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, now will fine members $500 the first time they don’t wear a mask and $2,500 the second time.
Conclusion: Grassley says he can’t enforce a mask order at the Capitol, but he and his Republican colleagues — who control the House and Senate — are the only ones who can enforce it, according to the governor’s proclamation.
When he says the constitution doesn’t allow him to prohibit members from exercising their right to vote, that’s true. But that has nothing to do with asking them to wear masks (or not to wear halter tops).
Just like the Iowa Senate keeps extra sport coats on hand for lawmakers who leave their blazers at home, the sergeant-at-arms could provide free paper masks. That’s what stores across the state are doing to comply with local mask orders or to protect their staff from the virus.
Grade: Legislative leaders can enforce a mask order, they just choose not to. Grassley gets an F.
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.
Claims must be independently verifiable.
We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context. If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan of The Gazette.
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