Iowa Republicans push for quasi-normalcy moving forward with COVID-19

As those in public health say the ending of the public health disaster proclamation was premature in Iowa, the majority party is advancing bills limiting vaccine and mask requirements.


Grace Smith

Members of the House congregate in the House Chamber after the opening of the 2022 Legislative Session at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. Both the House and Senate Republican leaders said the priority of this session is to return tax funds and address workforce conditions.

Natalie Dunlap, Politics Editor

The majority party in Iowa is pushing for legislation limiting vaccine and mask requirements, as Iowa’s coronavirus public health disaster proclamation expired this month.

State Government Committee Chair Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the “medical freedom” bill passed by the House State Government committee Tuesday is one of the biggest and most impactful bills in the Legislature related to COVID-19.

The bill, House Study Bill 647, states that businesses, education institutions and government entities cannot inquire about medical treatment or require a person to share proof of immunization, or withhold goods, services, or opportunities based on someone’s medical status.

This includes refusing to hire a potential employee and refusing to serve a person based on their vaccine status. The bill also states those entities cannot require face coverings or testing based on a person’s status or willingness to share proof of vaccination. The bill prohibits businesses from giving discounts or bonuses to people who are vaccinated.

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“I’m not anti-vaccine, I am pro-vaccine,” Kaufmann said. “If you wish to get the vaccines, boosters, wear a mask that is 100% of your prerogative that I support. But you do not have a right as a government or an employer, to force someone to do any of those things, and that’s the crux of what the bill is about.”

Kaufmann said legislators are open to making changes as the bill makes its way through the lawmaking process. He said he heard from University of Iowa Director of State Relations Keith Saunders about some changes the UI would like to see in terms of safeguarding patients in the health care realm.

Saunders declined to provide details about the changes the UI would like to see, but he said the university is looking forward to working with the Legislature going forward.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, ranking member of the State Government Committee, said she is concerned about the public letting their guard down at this stage in the pandemic. She opposed the bill.

“Our individual freedom only goes so far,” Mascher said. “They’re saying, ‘Well, you know, my body, my choice’ on whether I get a vaccine or not. That’s true. There’s no doubt about that. Nobody’s being forced to get vaccinated. However, some companies are requiring [vaccination] if you want to work there. If you don’t want to work there, then fine, go find a job at some other business that you don’t have to get vaccinated for.”

Data visualization by Anthony Neri/The Daily Iowan

Mascher compared choosing not to get vaccinated to choosing to drink and drive.

“It’s not as easy as to say, ‘Well I can do whatever I want with my body, because it doesn’t affect you.’ Well, it does,” she said.

On Feb. 15 the state’s COVID-19 data website,, was taken down. Iowans can still find COVID-19 numbers on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website and other aggregators. According to the CDC, as of Feb. 18, there have been 7070 cases and 119 deaths in the last seven days. All but one of Iowa’s 99 counties are experiencing high transmission.

When Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the final extension of the public health emergency on Feb. 3, she said treating the pandemic as an emergency wasn’t necessary or feasible, and COVID-19 should be managed similarly to other infections illnesses like the flu.

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To some in public health, the move to stop sharing the data on the state level and end the proclamation was premature.

“For the most part, many of us in public health see this as too soon to end the proclamation,” said Sam Jarvis, the Johnson County Department of Public Health community health division manager.

Jarvis said he doesn’t believe the end of the proclamation will have much impact on local operations, but because Iowa is only reporting positive tests and not negative ones, the test positivity rate will be unknown.

Despite the end of the proclamation, Jarvis said COVID-19 is still causing illness and hospitalization.

“There’s still concern out there and we’re still emphasizing how important it is to continue to implement all the personal mitigation measures that we’ve been practicing for almost two years now,” he said “And for those of us who are in a workforce with sensitive or vulnerable populations, these will continue to be a priority and importance.”

COVID-19 cases in Iowa are down significantly from a peak of over 5,000 new cases daily around Jan. 20, but they’re still higher than summer 2021, when the CDC loosened some mask recommendations for vaccinated people. The daily average for new cases on Feb. 19 was 852, the first time the average was below 1,000 cases since October 2021.

Lina Tucker Reinders, executive director of the Iowa Public Health Association, said ending the health emergency while the state is still dealing with pandemic-related stressors is sending mixed messages.

“It is a concern that ending the emergency proclamation kind of gives the public message that, ‘It’s done, we’re moving on.’ And it’s not done yet, we are moving on,” she said. “And for many people, they can’t move on because their children are not yet vaccinated, they have medical vulnerabilities that put them at elevated risk, they are health care workers that are completely strained.”

According to the New York Times, 72 percent of Iowans five and older have at least one dose of the vaccine, and 65 percent have received their initial two-dose series. Children under five aren’t eligible for the vaccines.

Tucker Reinders said rather than returning to life before the pandemic, people should use the lessons from the last two years to create a better normal. She said people now have a greater understanding of how interconnected they are as a community when it comes to health.

“There’s so much that’s been uncovered in terms of the way we work, the way we respond to the equities that exist within our community that we can’t return to normal,” Tucker Reinders said. “What was normal two and a half years ago doesn’t exist anymore.”

Tucker Reinders said she would like to see a stronger investment in state and local health department funding from Iowa’s government, as well as increased access to mental health resources, as harm to mental health is a secondary impact to the pandemic that will last a long time, she said.

There are also bills in the Iowa House and Senate addressing COVID-19 vaccinations for children to attend daycare and K-12 school. Both House File 2298 prohibits requiring vaccination for enrollment, and Senate File 2079 provides medical and religious exemptions.

Kaufmann said ending the emergency proclamation is a continuation of common-sense leadership from Reynolds.

“I think the general public is absolutely ready to figure out how to continue to be aware of the problem that exists, but to absolutely get back to normal,” Kaufmann said. “I hear it every day, and it’s not just Republicans anymore, I’m hearing it from Independents and Democrats, I’m hearing it from liberals that it is time to figure out how to move forward in a way that can quasi-resemble normalcy.”