CORONAVIRUS

Over protests, Muscatine mayor mandates masks

It's questionable whether she has the legal authority

About 50 people protested Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson's news conference Sunday, when she announced she issued a proc
About 50 people protested Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson’s news conference Sunday, when she announced she issued a proclamation requiring the use of face coverings in public during the COVID-19 pandemic. (David Hotle/Muscatine Journal)

MUSCATINE — Mayor Diana Broderson was unable Sunday afternoon to finish reading a proclamation requiring the city’s residents to wear face masks or coverings in public when about 50 people gathered in front of Muscatine City Hall to protest the order disrupted her speech.

According to the proclamation, believed to be the first of its kind in Iowa, masks will be mandatory beginning at 6 a.m. Monday in public areas in the city as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Muscatine County as of Sunday has reported 637 cases of the infection, far less that of Johnson County to its west or Scott County to its east. But is also has reported 44 deaths because of the virus — over five times more than Johnson and over four times as many as Scott.

Broderson maintains she has the legal authority to issue the local proclamation, but that is questionable. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ statewide emergency orders do not require that people wear face coverings in public.

While the Muscatine proclamation specifies its police officers can treat violations as a municipal infraction with a penalty beginning at $500, Broderson hopes that would not be needed. She likened it to people receiving warnings from police when shooting off fireworks illegally.

“Nobody is going to be hauled off to jail,” Broderson said after the aborted news conference. “This will give our police officers a tool to use as they see fit, but our police officers know what they are doing and they will handle this like they handle every other thing.”

Broderson there are exceptions to the proclamation. People can be exempted if wearing a mask interferes with their job, creates a workplace hazard or unsafe environment or makes a medical condition worse for the wearer. She said most people would be able to just explain that they have a justified reason for not wearing a mask if questioned.

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Before having to leave the stand on the front steps of City Hall in the face of protests, Broderson said Muscatine is only just now reopening and counts on businesses for its survival. With a dramatic upswing in the number of COVID-19 cases in nearby counties — like Scott and Johnson — she said she hopes to stop an upswing in cases in Muscatine that could force a second closure of businesses.

Few in the crowd that attended wore masks. Randy VanZee said he opposes wearing them and wanted to hear what Broderson had to say about the issue.

“There is no scientific proof they work,” he asserted. “If they work — we have been doing this for four months. Social distancing, masks, shutting down the economy. So why is it still spreading? Where in the Constitution that says my rights can be revoked because of a respiratory flu?”

COVID-19 is a novel respiratory virus with no vaccine. There have been 2,874,396 confirmed cases in the United States since the pandemic began in late 2019 and 129,870 people have died. In Iowa, where cases have been climbing since the state loosened restrictions on businesses, there have been 31,377 confirmed cases and 721 deaths since it was confirmed here in March.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are recent scientific studies showing face coverings help reduce the spread of the virus.

Cloth face masks are intended to protect others — not the person wearing one.

“Everyone should wear a cloth face cover in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” the CDC advises.

Sitting under a shade tree in the 90-degree day, Logan Hickman carried a white board showing ways a mayor could be recalled from office.

“I think she is overreaching,” he said. “If she doesn’t stop we may have to recall her. She may think she is the queen bee of Muscatine, but this is not a monarchy and we don’t have to bow to her demands, especially when the governor said we are free to do what you want.”

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Reynolds has said people should follow Iowa Department of Health guidelines, which do not require using face coverings. The governor’s office did not immediately return a request Sunday evening for comment.

Broderson said she has the authority to issue such a local mandate. She said the proclamation was made in conjunction with the city attorney. She cited the Iowa Constitution, which says municipal corporations are granted home rule powers to determine local affairs and the state should not interfere unless a current law is being violated. Broderson also cited Iowa statute 372.14, saying a mayor may take command of the police and governance of the city by proclamation upon the issuance of an emergency declaration.

But the Iowa Attorney General recently said municipal proclamations must be consistent with the governor’s declarations, so a city or county proclamation requiring face coverings like Broderson’s would not be consistent with the governor’s declarations.

In the crowd of people who attended the reading, City Council members Dewayne Hopkins, Osmond Malcolm and Peggy Gordon watched. While Malcolm and Gordon wore masks, Hopkins did not. He said he is a Vietnam veteran and feels it is his right to choose whether to war a mask. Gordon disagreed, saying it has been proven masks can slow the spread of COVID-19. Malcolm said the council is able to override the proclamation, but he does not believe it will.

“If it can save someone’s life, it is kind of hard for me to object,” Malcolm said.

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, Broderson was not present and the council did not discuss the possibility of mandating masks.

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