Staff Columnist

Five reasons Iowa officials are wary of a shelter-in-place order right now

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus during a news conference at the State Emergency O
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, Pool)

If Facebook comments on video streams of Iowa officials’ news conferences are any indication, people are frustrated that the government isn’t taking more drastic steps to limit personal movement during the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics have harsh words for Gov. Kim Reynolds and local authorities, likening them to murderers for not issuing mandatory shelter-in-place orders.

There are some good reasons to be cautious about a compulsory stay-at-home policy, but political leaders have done a poor job explaining them to the public. Here are a few examples.

• There is no health care consensus.

Even if the message on your social media feed is resounding, local scientists and medical professionals disagree on the precise course of action to manage the COVID-19 outbreak.

At a meeting this week, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness cautioned the Board of Supervisors against issuing a local shelter-in-place order, in part because such an order does not have support from the local medical community.

The county’s public health and emergency management staff have not called on elected officials to impose a shelter-in-place order. At a news conference this week, leaders of Mercy Iowa City and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics said they oppose a mandatory stay-home policy, arguing it could disrupt local supply chains and generate panic among the public.

• Local facts matter.

The effects of coronavirus might depend on factors in individual communities, such as demographics, population density, transportation habits and health care systems. Several officials have pointed out that we should expect large metro areas to be hit more rapidly because they are more interconnected than rural areas.

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In a letter to the governor this week, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart called for a statewide order and argued against county-by-county measures, in part because he doesn’t want local businesses to be at a disadvantage to competitors in nearby counties without restrictions.

Hart makes a good case for regional coordination, which is already happening to some extent in Linn and Johnson counties, but it might not make sense to throw Lyon County into the same regulatory regime.

• Timing matters.

Many Iowa officials acknowledge stricter orders will eventually be necessary, but they want to delay as long as it’s safe. A common counter-argument is that in the absence of complete information, we should err on the side of caution and shut down as many activities as possible.

That strategy could backfire. County leaders have discussed the possibility that ordering shelter too soon could postpone a significant spike, or lead to a second spike, which appears to be happening in some other countries.

As of this week, CovidActNow.com, a virus tracking tool built by tech businesses that has been cited by some Iowa officials calling for more restrictions, lists April 18 to 24 as the last chance for Iowa to implement shelter-in-place to avoid overwhelming hospitals. That is just one estimate and it’s a moving target, with the date pushed back in the latest edition of the model.

• It might not be much different from current policy.

Shelter-in-place could mean a lot of different things, and other states still are sorting out what activities are allowed to continue. A long list of basic services are exempt from the orders, and states are leaving open some seemingly less-essential locations like liquor stores and parks. So, a lot of people would still be out moving around the community.

A firm stay-at-home directive might lead to more voluntary compliance with social distancing practices. But achieving anything near total compliance would require extreme surveillance and enforcement measures, which many Iowans would not support.

• There are other options.

Mandatory quarantines are blunt and belligerent instruments, incongruent with civil liberties. They should be considered the last resort after less restrictive measures have been exhausted.

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It is possible to phase in a shutdown. Think of it as a dial rather than a lightswitch, we’re told.

After the first round of restrictions on St. Patrick’s Day, Gov. Reynolds followed up with another set several days later to order additional business to close, and even more were announced on Thursday. Colorado last week ordered non-essential businesses to reduce their in-person workforce by 50 percent, a move at least one Johnson County supervisor voiced support for.

Short of a statewide order, Iowa could make more targeted orders or explicitly give local governments more authority.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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