Iowa Legislature divided on mask wearing despite Gov. Kim Reynolds’ partial mask mandate

As the state legislative session begins, the Iowa Statehouse will not require people to wear masks, contradicting a proclamation issued by Gov. Kim Reynolds.


Ryan Adams for the Daily Iowan

Anti-mask protestors stand in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol Building before the opening of the legislative session on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Ryan Adams/The Daily Iowan)

Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

DES MOINES — Masks continue to be a divisive issue as the state legislative session opened on Monday with little mitigation efforts and anti-mask protesters flooding the halls of the Iowa Capitol, disregarding an order issued by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“Somebody’s going to get killed here — somebody’s going to die that’s associated with the General Assembly,” said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, in an interview with The Daily Iowan. “…somebody is going to die as a result of reckless planning that’s gone into bringing the General Assembly back.”

Republican leaders are not requiring people to wear masks or report positive COVID-19 tests despite an order Reynolds extended on Jan. 7. The order states that masks are required to be worn in indoor spaces when people are unable to social distance for longer than 15 minutes. The proclamation is in effect until Feb. 6. 

At one point, there were hundreds of protestors in the Capitol rotunda on Monday morning without masks and in close proximity to each other for a couple of hours. Iowans with a wide range of ages formed a circle and held signs protesting masks and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts. 

Reynolds’ office did not immediately respond to The Daily Iowan’s request for a comment, but said during a Jan. 7 press conference that the Legislature is a “separate branch,” so they can make their own decisions.

“We all have a responsibility, you know, personal responsibility, to protect ourselves and others, and that’s what we’ll be doing at the executive branch,” Reynolds said on Jan. 7.

Bolkcom said it’s unclear what the Legislature will do if there is a COVID-19 outbreak within the Capitol, especially considering people are not required to report positive cases. Last spring, the Legislature suspended for more than a month when COVID-19 was still unknown territory.

Reynolds’ proclamation came as Iowa’s COVID-19 positivity rate reached its highest peak this month. According to data compiled by the Mayo Clinic, Iowa’s COVID-19 positivity rate is 20. 9 percent as of Jan. 9. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were both at one point among the top 10 cities nationally for COVID-19 infections per capita.

Iowa Rep. Steve Holt, R-Dennison, chair of the House judiciary committee, chose not to wear a mask Monday because he said he already had COVID-19 and built antibodies. He added that no matter the circumstances, people should be able to make their own decisions.

Holt also mingled with the protesters after they began to disperse, saying he supported their right to protest against COVID-19 restrictions.

“I do not support mask mandates,” Holt told the DI. “I think if government thinks masks should be worn, they should provide the medical rationale, they should highly recommend it. And then, they should allow free men and women that have a bill of rights to make those decisions for themselves.”

He added that he supports the actions taken by Republican leadership in making mask-wearing an individual choice.

In what is usually a crowded House chamber on opening day, there were about a dozen empty seats as Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley gave remarks. Some Democrats have voiced opposition to the lack of safety measures implemented by Republican leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said at a virtual legislative forum on Jan. 7 that he hopes people entering the Capitol will make responsible choices without an official requirement. He added that Republican leadership cannot enforce mask mandates inside the Capitol.

Several lawmakers were seen sitting on the House floor without a mask, and many people walking the halls of the Capitol also chose to not wear a mask.

Some Democrats in both the House and Senate opted to watch Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley’s remarks remotely, and some lawmakers were sworn in and signed the oath of office in another location on the Capitol complex, Iowa House Communications Director Dean Fiihr wrote in a statement to reporters. 

He also wrote that some Democrats will watch Reynolds’ Condition of the State address remotely on Tuesday. Her speech is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday.

The protests carried on through Grassley’s opening remarks, and echoes of chanting could be heard in the House chamber. Emily and Rob Wood, residents of the Des Moines area, said they came to the Capitol to protest Reynolds’ most recent COVID-19 proclamation. 

“She has the right by herself to decide swimming is out, football is out, restaurants are out, when you have the right as a human being to make that decision for yourself,” Emily Wood, 40, said. “I do not appreciate or approve that she has that right when it impedes upon our unalienable rights.”