IOWA LEGISLATURE

COVID-19 looms over Iowa Legislature's return

GOP leaders won't make lawmakers wear masks in Capitol

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, right, stands in the Iowa House chambers June 3 at the Statehouse in Des Moines. Lawmak
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, right, stands in the Iowa House chambers June 3 at the Statehouse in Des Moines. Lawmakers returned that day after suspending the session when the coronavirus pandemic surfaced in Iowa in March, prompting state officials to close the state Capitol. Again this year, Grassley and other GOP leaders in the Legislature decided not to require legislators in the Capitol to wear face coverings. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — With COVID-19 still spreading across Iowa, and public health experts warning that the pandemic’s deadliest days still may be coming, Iowa Republican leaders plan to convene the 2021 session of the Iowa Legislature on its scheduled start date of Jan. 11 and to conduct their business in-person.

Legislative leaders face a balancing act of conducting the business of the Legislature with transparency while attempting to protect the health of themselves and any Iowans who come to the Iowa Capitol.

Republican leaders ruled out two possible mitigation strategies: They do not plan to delay the start date, nor do they plan to require that anyone in the Capitol wear a face covering.

Because Republicans have a majority in both the Iowa Senate and Iowa House, they determine how the legislative session will operate.

“Our No. 1 and 1-A (priorities) are making sure that we’re being responsible in our return, but we’re also able to work in a transparent manner. And I think we can do that,” said Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley, of New Hartford. “We showed that we did that in June, and I think we’ve all had more time to think of a way to approach session.”

Lawmakers suspended the 2020 session when the pandemic first hit Iowa in March. After an 11-week break, lawmakers returned to finish their work on the state budget and a few pieces of legislation, including a landmark social justice package.

Republican leaders said they will build off that template — which included reducing the number of individuals in the House and Senate chambers, and holding some committee meetings in the chambers where there is more room — for this session.

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Iowa’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been declining since the worst spike of the pandemic here in October and November. Throughout December, those numbers have been in a steady decline and were approaching pre-spike levels.

However, national public health experts have cautioned that January could be the deadliest month yet for the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 343,000 Americans and nearly 4,000 Iowans.

The COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed throughout the country, including in Iowa. But unlike members of the federal government, state lawmakers have not been prioritized to receive the vaccines.

Many state lawmakers are in the older age groups that are more susceptible to the serious effects of COVID-19. In 2019, nine state lawmakers were in their 70s, and the average age was 54.8.

“Our overarching theme is we want to operate as normal as possible, as safely as possible, with full transparency so that everyone around the state can watch and participate in what we’re doing,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, of Ankeny. “In order for that to happen, not knowing exactly where we’re going to be at in the pandemic when the session starts, we are putting contingencies in place to operate a little bit more virtual, a little bit more where Iowans can watch or participate and not be at the Capitol.

“Those contingencies are being put in place, but we feel confident that we’re going to be able to have a productive session and operate as normal as possible at the Capitol.”

COVID-19 already has claimed the lives of state lawmakers elsewhere recently. New Hampshire’s House Speaker died of COVID-19 just a week after being sworn in, and a Minnesota state legislator died after being exposed to the virus at the state capitol there.

New Hampshire’s state legislature is designing plans to conduct its business in drive-up fashion, similar to a drive-in movie, where lawmakers will park in cars and listen to speeches via a radio sound system, according to the Concord Monitor.

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Whitver and Grassley said plans are being made in Des Moines to offer online viewing of committee hearings on legislation and to reduce the number of legislative staff working in the chambers.

However, Whitver said lawmakers will not be required to wear face coverings in the Capitol. One Senate Democrat called that “scary” and another “idiotic.”

“The prospect of going into the Statehouse without a mask mandate is pretty scary, and frankly it will jeopardize the health and safety of everybody in the building, not just lawmakers, not just the public, not just the press. Everybody,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, of Coralville.

“I’m worried that if we are expected to go to a Capitol where there is not a mask requirement, we will be accelerating the spread of COVID-19 rather than being a part of slowing the spread. And that will expose people like my mother, our staff, our members to a potentially deadly disease that has already claimed the lives of thousands of Iowans,” he said.

Public health experts say face coverings, especially when combined with social distancing and vigilant hand and face hygiene, are an effective tool in slowing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“There’s going to be a requirement that I wear a tie and a coat when I’m in the Senate chamber, but no requirement to wear a mask? That’s idiotic. That makes no sense,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

“We ought to be meeting virtually the first number of weeks of the session. There’s no great urgency for us to get back and it’s almost impossible to social distance at the Capitol when you put all of those people in there,” he added. “I think (majority Republicans) are of a mindset that, by God, come hell or high water or deadly pandemic, we’re going back to work.”

In addition to the impact of COVID-19 on how they will conduct their business, legislators will debate whether the state should offer financial assistance to Iowa residents and businesses impacted by the pandemic. Any state relief would be in addition to federal pandemic relief, the second round of which was recently approved by Congress.

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Iowa Senate Democrats have proposed using some of the roughly $300 million state budget surplus to help address food insecurity, which has more than doubled in Iowa over the pandemic, according to Iowa Food Bank Chief Executive Officer Michelle Book.

“We know it’s been a tough year for a lot of people,” Whitver said. “There will be opportunities to fund some of the priorities. That’s just going to be up to the budgeting process. … We’ll use the normal budgeting process, which is figure out how much money is going to come in this year, figure out our priorities, and put a budget together that spends less than we bring in.”

Some Republican lawmakers are calling for an examination of emergency authority given to the governor and state public health department during a pandemic.

“I have grave concerns about the scope and duration of emergency powers, which seem to have no limits or end date in sight,” Sen. Zach Whiting, a Republican from Spirit Lake, told the Sioux City Journal. “The legislature needs to … consider how we can place appropriate limits, checks and balances, and provide remedies for individuals, businesses, churches, and other entities affected by executive overreach.”

Whitver and Grassley complimented Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds for her guidance of the state’s pandemic response efforts. Whitver said he has not had any conversations about addressing executive authority, and Grassley said he feels that debate should be had at a later time, with the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

“I’m not convinced that right now is the right time. We’re in a pandemic,” Grassley said. “Hopefully we’re approaching the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine going out. But I think for us to make some of those calls while we’re still going through that, I’m not convinced is the appropriate time.”

Reynolds declined an interview request for the bureau’s legislative preview series, breaking a long-standing tradition of the sitting governor meeting with Iowa reporters to discuss issues that might be addressed in the session and in the governor’s Condition of the State address.

According to Reynolds’ staff, the change was due to an “unprecedented year” that has required the governor to concentrate on preparations for her Jan. 12 Condition of the State speech and focus on Iowa’s COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution.

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Instead of meeting individually with Iowa news organizations, she plans to attend a roundtable discussion with member of the Iowa Capitol Press Association this week as her pre-session media availability.

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

2021 Iowa Legislative Preview Series

Today: COVID-19

Monday: Redistricting

Tuesday: Tax policy and the budget

Wednesday: Higher education

Thursday: K-12 education funding and policy

Friday: Criminal justice reform

Saturday: Hot-button issues

Jan. 10: The digital divide

Jan. 11: Demographics of the Iowa Legislature

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