Government

Johnson County mask requirement 'unenforceable,' county attorney tells supervisors

Supervisors want county board of health to declare requirement so it can be

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness has a view of the Johnson County Courthouse from her office at the new Johnson Coun
Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness has a view of the Johnson County Courthouse from her office at the new Johnson County Attorney’s Office in the Midwest One building in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Limited in their ability to enforce a mandate for people to wear masks in public, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors wants the county Board of Health to approve such a measure.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

“That might be something the Board of Supervisors wants,” said Johnson County Public Health Director Dave Koch. “That doesn’t mean the Board of Health would go down that road and give them that. It will have to be discussed and we’ll see where all five board members fall on that.”

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The supervisors issued their resolution Thursday requiring mask use when in public places. This comes on the heels of Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague issuing a mandate this week requiring masks in public in the city, with some exceptions.

There’s one key area where the county’s action differs from the city’s, however.

“It’s basically unenforceable,” Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said of the county’s resolution.

Though the Governor’s Office and Iowa Attorney General’s Office have said local officials do not have the legal authority to enforce mask orders, Teague argues he does because the state constitution and state law provide mayors with such home rule powers.

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Even so, Lyness said, that would apply only to mayors — not supervisors. She did offer the supervisors a path forward, however: If the Johnson County Board of Health passes a measure requiring masks in public, the Board of Supervisors could adopt it, she said.

“You could certainly pass something today encouraging everyone to wear one,” Lyness said. “I think there is some benefit to the public of just expressing how important it is to wear some kind of face covering or face protection. I just want to be clear you do not have enforcement authority.”

Whether the county health board has the appetite to issue such an order is another story.

Before he sent a letter last week to local elected leaders urging them to pass resolutions encouraging mask use, Koch said he discussed it with health board members.

Koch said members were supportive with the knowledge that any measure adopted by the Board of Supervisors wouldn’t be enforceable.

“We never discussed in July about a Board of Health countywide ordinance, which is significantly different from supporting a largely symbolic resolution by the Board of Supervisors,” Koch told The Gazette.

Koch said his next steps will include sitting down with the county attorney to discuss the “potential pros and cons” of a countywide mask mandate issued by the Board of Health.

He’ll then gauge the health board’s willingness to go that route before putting it on the Aug. 19 agenda.

Koch said he doesn’t anticipate holding a special meeting for the Board of Health before that previously scheduled meeting.

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Earlier this month, Muscatine’s Diana Broderson became the first mayor in Iowa to issue a mask mandate. But several local and state officials quickly dismissed her authority to do so.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she encourages people to wear masks, but will not issue an order requiring it.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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