Republican legislative leaders won’t require masks for upcoming session

As the Iowa legislature prepares to begin its 2021 session, Republican leaders have not made it a requirement to wear a mask or disclose a positive test result in the Iowa Statehouse. Iowa Democrats are disappointed in this decision as cases continue to be in high numbers.


Katina Zentz

Newly elected Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, speaks to the media at the Iowa State Capitol on Monday, January 13, 2020. The House convened and leaders in the Iowa House of Representatives gave opening remarks to preview their priorities for the 2020 session. (Katina Zentz/The Daily Iowan)

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa’s Republican legislative leaders defended their decision to not mandate masks or disclosure of a positive COVID-19 case at the statehouse during the upcoming legislative session as Republicans and Democrats continue to disagree on how to manage the pandemic.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the Iowa Legislature met with reporters in a virtual forum Thursday to give insight into what the upcoming legislative session will look like as the state continues to battle the coronavirus.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said that he hopes everyone entering the statehouse does what is responsible without having a specific requirement.

In Capitol protocols released Wednesday, Iowa Republicans announced that they would not require face coverings in the statehouse or mandate individuals to disclose a positive COVID-19 test to their superiors and colleagues in the Capitol. Republican leaders cited the difficulty of enforcing a mandate.

“We are balancing policy with public safety and we expect people to report their illness even without a requirement,” Whitver said.

Whitver said that there is an agenda that needs to be met and promises that need to be kept, and both must be done by staying in session as long as possible. The session begins on Jan. 11.

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Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said that he expects Democrats to wear masks at all times in the statehouse because Polk County’s positivity rate is relatively high. According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, Polk County’s 14-day positivity rate is 14.7 percent.

Wahls said he’s disappointed that Iowa Republicans declined to have a mask mandate as Reynolds has a statewide mask-wearing requirements in certain situations and masks have become a national standard. Lawmakers are expecting a protest at the Iowa Capitol on Monday against mask wearing.

“We are all concerned, for those of us who don’t live in Polk County who will be coming into Polk County being exposed to these protesters and others, and then having to come home back to our own communities where we will be attending forums and meeting with constituents that, without a mask mandate at the Capitol, this very well could become a superspreader event,” Wahls said.

Todd Prichard, the Iowa House Minority Leader, said that COVID-19 positive cases are still very high and that Democrats will be requiring masks at all events and activities possible.

“I am concerned and want to avoid turning the Legislature in a superspreader event, and so we are going to be doing everything that we know to do to protect ourselves and to protect the public from further spreading this virus,” he said.

Speaker of the House Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters that he plans to wear a mask when he’s unable to social distance, unless he is in the chair, and will be recommending everyone else do the same.

As there is more technology and mitigation practices available in the House than there were in June, Grassley said, he hopes to do more streaming of committee and subcommittee processes and utilizing larger spaces. However, he said there is nothing that can be done to keep congress members from coming into the Statehouse while infected.

“We feel as though we have approached this in a reasonable way. I think we learned from June that members are going to take the precautions that they need to to be safe. That was kind of a test run,” Grassley said.