Guest Columnist

Iowa's governor declared a statewide emergency. An expert explains what that means.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference about the state's response to COVID-19, the illness caused by the
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference about the state’s response to COVID-19, the illness caused by the spreading coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

On March 17, 2020, Gov. Reynolds issued a wide-ranging public health order making sweeping, mandatory, changes to daily life across the state in order to control the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. The most dramatic part of the order is that all restaurants and bars are closed except for take out and delivery service, all senior centers, gyms, theatres, and casinos are closed altogether, and all gatherings, including sports, church, and other events with more than ten people are canceled. She also suspended Iowa’s controversial “certificate-of-need” rules, which require formal approval before health care facilities can expand, as well as a number of other licensing and operating restrictions that could stand in the way of our hospitals delivering as much care as possible.

Some Iowans question the governor’s authority to take these steps. Others, particularly on social media, have challenged the order’s wisdom or suggested that it’s inconsistent with American values of individual freedom. Gov. Reynolds is well within her power to carry out these steps. It’s also the right thing to do.

Iowa law is quite clear that the governor can issue these orders and more besides. Specifically, Iowa Code § 29C.6 (15) gives the governor the authority to control “the occupancy of premises” and “the movement of people” in a disaster area — which, in this case, is the entire state. For “premises” substitute “bars and restaurants and gyms” and for “movement of people” substitute “showing up at events with more than ten people” and you can read her power directly off the text of the law.

Nor is there anything unusual about these powers or inappropriate about their exercise. Just in the current crisis, the governors of numerous other states as well as mayors, county commissioners, and public health authorities across the country have issued similar orders. And pretty much every country in the world has laws providing for similar powers.

Actually, there are much more extreme measures that Gov. Reynolds and President Donald Trump could take. In wartime, we see rationing of food and other essential supplies. In out-of-control fires, we see forced evacuations and even the outright destruction of private property — the government can knock down your home or business in order to create a firebreak.

The coronavirus pandemic is a lot less visible than a war or a fire. In a raging wildfire, we can see the ash and smell the smoke. In any war that requires the level of national mobilization that leads to rationing, just about everyone will know someone who has been called up to serve. When 9/11 happened, we all saw the fallen towers on TV. But the pandemic still feels distant — most of us do not yet know someone who is in an ICU, on a ventilator, struggling for air, even though the pandemic could kill enough Americans to make a thousand 9/11s.

Unfortunately the coronavirus isn’t as distant as it feels. There’s an old fable, sometimes attributed to India, about a king who receives some service from a subject and promises him any reward he wants. According to the story, the clever subject asks for a single grain of rice, but doubled every day for a month. Delighted to be getting off so cheaply, the king agrees, and, by the end of the month, he owes trillions of grains of rice and the kingdom is bankrupt. This fable about the phenomenon of exponential growth illustrates that a small number can turn into a large number very quickly when you multiply it out enough times. As epidemiologists have explained, this means that early, strong, measures have an outsized impact in reducing the number of infections and, ultimately deaths. A century ago, similar measures saved many lives during the Spanish Flu pandemic, which still killed half a million Americans.


While we can’t see the millions of lives on the line, we all can feel the immediate social and economic pain of the restrictions. For that reason, it’s hard to get people to restrict their daily lives voluntarily. This is why there were lines (of incredibly selfish, foolish people) around the block outside bars in Chicago and New York last weekend — and why Iowa Code § 29C.18 gives the police the power to arrest anyone violating Gov. Reynolds’s emergency order.

In several counties in California, residents are under “shelter in place” orders forbidding them from being out and about at all, except to satisfy a narrow list of critical personal needs, such as shopping for food, caring for family or seeking health care. Gov. Reynolds has the power to make such an order here in Iowa too — and she may yet have to do so, unless the steps she has taken thus far are sufficient to drastically reduce the virus’s toll on the state. We should all, regardless of party or agreement with her policies in general, thank her for taking this vital step.

Paul Gowder is a Professor and O.K. Patton fellow in Law at the University of Iowa, where he teaches constitutional law, among other subjects. He’s the author of The Rule of Law in the Real World (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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