IOWA LEGISLATURE

Rep. Amy Nielsen of North Liberty blames lack of House rules for her coronavirus infection

DES MOINES, Iowa — A Democratic state lawmaker from North Liberty said she has tested positive for COVID-19 and thinks she became infected at the Iowa Capitol, where Republicans have refused to mandate masks or require people to disclose positive cases.

The announcement Saturday night by Rep. Amy Nielsen marked the first confirmed case among Iowa legislators, but there have been three other positive cases among people associated in the House since the legislative session began three weeks ago. One of those additional cases was announced Saturday by the House’s chief clerk, but the infected person wasn’t named.

Nielsen said she began feeling tired Thursday and by Friday was feeling worse. She was tested positive Saturday.

Nielsen had decided with her family that she would not return home from Des Moines during the legislative session, as lawmakers typically do on weekends, and said she is relieved about that decision now. She has a husband and two kids at home and another child away at college.

Nielsen, who said she wore a mask covering her nose and mouth but does not have eye covering, believes she contracted the virus at the Capitol, where Republican leaders have not required masks and do not require disclosure of positive cases. She said she’s gone nowhere else but to the building and briefly to a grocery store where everyone was wearing masks.

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley was confronted several times by Democratic members during floor debate last week when he refused to put on a mask after requiring the members to talk with him at the speaker’s desk.

“I got called down to the well by Speaker Grassley who refused to wear a mask. I tried to socially distance from him but you can only go so far,” she said.

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Democratic Rep. Bruce Hunter of Des Moines refused to report to Grassley’s desk after a disagreement broke out with another House member during debate Thursday and Grassley ordered both members to his desk.

Grassley wouldn’t put on a mask and Hunter refused to approach.

Other members frequently do not wear masks in the chamber, Nielsen said.

“I had a member and a guest standing right in front of my desk having an unmasked conversation and I had to ask them to please move,” she said. “The lack of a mask mandate and the lack of mandatory reporting is incredibly problematic.”

Grassley has said he cannot force members to wear masks and is unwilling to require them to leave if they don’t.

A Gazette Fact Checker looking into the issue last month gave Grassley an F for claiming he didn’t have the authority. Legislative leaders actually do have the authority to set rules in their chambers — which already include dress codes — but simply chose not to add masks.

“If they can tell me I can’t wear jeans on the floor they can tell me I have to wear a mask. It’s that simple,” Nielsen said.

She said wearing a mask is such a simple act of respect for colleagues and she expressed frustration that now she cannot do her work on behalf of her constituents while in isolation.

Grassley’s spokeswoman did not respond to a message Saturday seeking comment.

House Chief Clerk Meghan Nelson sent out an email Saturday alerting others working in the building that a positive test had been reported. Then later in the day a second notification was sent, which makes the fourth case identified on the House side of the Capitol since the session began Jan. 11.

The union representing state workers has filed a complaint with Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration claiming the majority leaders’ policies create an unsafe workplace. Inspectors were in the building Wednesday.

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Government officials and staff working in the Capitol during the legislative session are included in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, although the supply of vaccines falls far short of the number of Iowans also in the same phase.

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