Staff Editorial

Mandate masks in the Iowa Capitol

Senate rules require men to wear a coat and tie when the chamber is in session. But masks are optional.

Protesters gather in the Iowa Capitol rotunda to voice their opposition to mask mandates, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at the
Protesters gather in the Iowa Capitol rotunda to voice their opposition to mask mandates, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Top Republican legislative leaders in the Iowa House and Senate are powerful politicians. They set the agenda at the Statehouse, play a key role in deciding which bills live or die and have considerable influence over the GOP lawmakers they lead.

And yet, they contend they’re powerless to enforce a mask mandate in the state Capitol in the middle of a pandemic that still is killing Iowans.

This is, of course, nonsense. And it is nonsense that became dangerous Monday morning when a crowd of maskless protesters railing against mask-wearing and vaccines filled the Capitol rotunda. The protesters’ presence threatened the health of everyone who works in the Statehouse.

Republicans who run the building shrugged. They’re recommending, but not requiring masks. That insist that’s all they can do.

In pointed remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, criticized Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, for lax coronavirus rules that are “making the Tyson managers look like they had their act together.” Bolkcom was referring to meatpacking plants where hundreds of workers were infected.

Bolkcom has also repeatedly pointed to Senate rules requiring men to wear a coat and tie when the chamber is in session. But masks are optional.

We’re getting the distinct impression from Statehouse Republicans they want to pretend the pandemic is over. That makes it far easier to cater to the extreme voices in their party who deny the danger of the virus and reject mitigation measures based on sound science.

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Problem is, the state has reported more than 10,000 new cases in the past week, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University, and 172 deaths were added to a total that has now topped 4,200. It’s going to be months before a vaccine is available to most Iowans. So the pandemic is far from over, and ignoring it won’t make it so.

Republicans’ failure to put prudent protections in place leads us to doubt their judgment on other issues. Can we really believe lawmakers who say it’s safe to require 100 percent in-person instruction in schools when they won’t take even the simplest measures to mitigate the danger in their own workplace?

Once again, the pandemic response at the Statehouse is more about politics than public health. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen an uncontrolled spread of both the virus and absent leadership. Legislative leaders must acknowledge the danger that still exists, change course and protect our Capitol.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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