Dubuque County supervisors voted, 2-1, Sept. 8 against enacting a countywide mask mandate recommended by the county Board of Health.
The mandate would have required people older than three to wear face coverings in interior public spaces and businesses, as well as when they were outside if unable to maintain six feet of distance from others. Businesses would have been prohibited from serving people who entered their premises without masks, with some exceptions.
The proposed resolution was similar to one passed by the Dubuque City Council last month, and it would have applied to all of the county outside of the city of Dubuque.
The vote followed more than an hour of input, focused on mayors of the county’s smaller cities. Epworth Mayor Sandy Gassman said she supports wearing masks, that she wears a mask every time she is in public and cannot socially distance, but that a mandate was “going too far.”
“Leave it up to us to look at the people, the circumstances and the data to determine if a mask mandate is needed in our city,” she said.
The mayors also cited a lack of data specific to their cities.
“We all would appreciate if we could figure out how to get better data,” said Peosta Mayor Jim Merten. “Then, if the data suggested we should be doing something more aggressive, we would want to do that and would support that. But, in the absence of seeing data compelling us to support that, it is difficult to justify putting more restrictive expectations on our communities.”
Sageville Mayor Wayne Kenniker questioned the legality, referencing opinions by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller that mandates are beyond local government authority.
Iowa Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, warned of potential legal costs.
“My concern is ... the county is opening themselves up to a possible lawsuit,” Lundgren said. “In that instance, it costs the taxpayers twice — once out of their pocket to file a lawsuit against an illegal mandate, then secondly, the money used out of the county tax provisions on the other side.”
County Attorney C.J. May repeated his opinion that the county had the authority in Iowa Code relating to home rule.
Board of Health member and career nurse Diane Pape-Freiburger said it came down to public health and behavior, referencing letters the board sent to mayors recommending masks.
“It was never brought to the forefront,” she said. “In your communities, nothing changed. You’re saying you’ll be able to talk to individuals in your communities to make a change. I would have hoped that would have happened immediately.”
Kenniker disagreed with that notion, saying his city had the recommendation on their council agenda, discussed it, even had a council member make masks and put them up in their storefront.
“If this would have been a recommendation from the beginning, not a mandate, we would have been pushing behind the same vehicle,” he said.
The mayors’ arguments convinced Supervisors Ann McDonough and Dave Baker, who voted against the mandate.
“They had discussed it at their city councils but had not come to any conclusions,” McDonough said. “That’s when they were hit with our board of health’s resolution.”
Baker said he, too, shared the concerns about enforcement and binding the smaller cities to the requirements.
“The input from the mayors is important,” he said. “I really don’t want us fighting over a mandate. Then, the issue of masks gets pushed back, and the issue of the mandate creates division and a fight.”
Supervisor Jay Wickham said he did not see the mandate as standing in the way of the cities’ authority and made the motion that the mandate be approved. He then was the only supervisor to vote in favor.
“My vantage point is, it’s the right thing to do,” he said, voicing his support for the board of health in their recommendation.
Baker had also included on Tuesday’s agenda a resolution of “strong recommendation” that face coverings be worn countywide.
“In the discussion I’ve had with mayors, they were looking for something they could take back to their city councils,” he said.
But, Baker’s motion died for lack of a second. McDonough and Wickham both opposed it Sept. 8, for different reasons.
McDonough, for her part, said her hopes were to continue collaborating with the mayors to find a joint solution.
“I would like to see the next resolution we take action on reflect conversations that have been had with them and in their communities,” she said. “I think we want to pivot away from what the board of supervisors might say should be so, and ask them for their ideas for what should be included.”
Wickham, though, said their board had “bent” to the mayors’ opinion and that he saw little value in the recommendation.
“If you want the mayors to pass something, they all have that ability,” he said. “They all have city council meetings. Allow them to do it. You heard from them. I see no importance or significance to this recommendation resolution.”