Capitol Ideas: To mandate or not to mandate face masks; that really shouldn't be the question

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to the media Thursday, Nov. 12, during a COVID-19 news conference at Iowa PBS studios in J
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to the media Thursday, Nov. 12, during a COVID-19 news conference at Iowa PBS studios in Johnston. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES — With COVID-19 raging through Iowa at a disturbing pace, never before seen during the pandemic, the debate over mask wearing — and more specifically, whether face masks should be required by government — has reignited.

That debate should be unnecessary, as should any proposed need for intervention from our elected officials.

Based on the scientifically supported advice from nearly all public health and infectious disease experts, everyone should be wearing face masks in public, especially when people cannot maintain at least 6 feet of distance between themselves and others.

If everyone did his or her part by taking these simple and effective steps, there would be no need to debate whether governments should require such actions. Gov. Kim Reynolds and other elected leaders would not be subject to constant questions about whether they plan to implement a face mask mandate.

But face masks are most effective when everyone is doing his or her part — the more people that don’t socially distance and don’t wear, the more the virus is able to spread from person to person.

Clearly, not enough Iowans are heeding that advice from public health and infectious disease experts. The state has the fourth-highest rate of spread in the country, according to the latest report from the White House. The statewide, two-week average positivity rate is a remarkable, dangerous, 22.7 percent, and COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Iowa are all at record highs.

Hospitalizations are increasing so rapidly that hospital officials are sounding warnings of running out of available beds and health care staff. They are begging the public for help, pleading with Iowans to wear face masks in public.


Throughout the pandemic, Reynolds has said she does not believe a face mask mandate is necessary, that Iowans will do the right thing — even as the evidence mounts to show otherwise. Last week, Reynolds instituted some requirements for face masks, but only for social gatherings of 25 or more people. The requirement does not apply to businesses.

Reynolds has argued face mask mandates are not silver bullets that will stop the spread of the virus. And to a point, this is true. Iowa’s next-door neighbor of Wisconsin is proof: that state’s governor instituted a face mask mandate, and the virus has been spreading rapidly there, too.

But Wisconsin also is further proof that the buy-in for face mask mandate must be complete, from top to bottom, from elected officials to citizens going about their day-to-day business. And when that buy-in is not complete, the virus will continue to spread.

The messaging from elected leaders in Wisconsin has been inconsistent, too. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers issued the mask-wearing mandate, but majority Republicans in the state Legislature there have taken the governor’s mandate to court.

That divided leadership presents an opening for citizens to choose a path that aligns more with their personal beliefs, even if those do not align with the widespread expert advice on how to manage the pandemic. So you wind up with some people who wear face masks in public, and others who don’t.

That is not a recipe for success.

Public health and infectious disease experts are in near-unanimous agreement on this. We need the same from our elected officials if we are to get through this pandemic anytime soon.

Do we need a face mask mandate in Iowa? The bottom line is we shouldn’t have to even ask the question.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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