With the mask versus no mask argument raging around the country, local residents shouldn’t anticipate any immediate action from city officials requiring face coverings in public spaces.
Mayor Matt Walsh said he and his Council Bluffs government cohorts plan on following state statute cited by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — and backed by state Attorney General Tom Miller — saying that with statewide disaster emergency proclamations in place, Reynolds alone has the power to issue this kind of health directive.
Miller’s ruling says that any local action or regulation needs to be consistent and compliant with Reynolds’ proclamations and Iowa Department of Public Health directives.
Walsh spoke with the Nonpareil just a day after the Omaha City Council unanimously passed an ordinance on Tuesday requiring Omahans to wear masks or face coverings inside schools, businesses, churches and other indoor settings open to the public.
Adults and children 5 and older will have to wear a mask or face covering over their nose and mouth in many indoor settings, including schools, places of worship, workplaces, private businesses and public transportation, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
There are a number of exceptions to the ordinance — mask use wouldn’t be mandatory while eating or drinking in bars or restaurants; exercising in gyms or visiting government offices; or if someone has a disability or medical condition that would be affected by wearing a mask.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert has said she won’t veto a mask requirement.
National business chains, including Menards, Walmart, Sam’s Club, CVS, The Home Depot and others have instituted mask requirements, along with local businesses, including many hair salons. At the government level, 34 states have mask mandates, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Colorado, along with varying cities and counties in states without a mandate.
Walsh said he thinks the action was appropriate in Omaha — it was previously the largest city in the U.S. without a local- or state-mandated mask rule — but noted that Council Bluffs, although just a stone’s throw away, operates independently.
“To me, personally, their actions made sense,” Walsh said, adding that about 19,000 local residents work in the Omaha metro area. “Iowa, obviously, operates under different rules and laws than communities in Nebraska.
“Kim Reynolds has said that local authorities do not have the authority to do anything that conflicts with her statewide emergency declarations or public health guidance on COVID-19. And the Iowa Attorney General’s office has supported that.”
Across the state, however, cities are defying the governor’s wishes. Iowa City, Muscatine and Dubuque officials have taken action imposing mask wearing. Other cities have been considering taking similar steps.
In addition, Johnson County has implemented a mask requirement and the Linn County Board of Supervisors earlier this month adopted a proclamation requesting authority from the governor to give local officials power to adopt measures they deem appropriate for the local response to COVID-19.
No action as of Thursday afternoon had been taken by the attorney general’s office to stop local or county mask mandates.
“There has been no legal action by our office,” said Lynn Hicks, communications director for the Office of the Attorney General, through an email. “The only action we have taken is to provide informal advice to Sen. (Zach) Wahls, who had asked about the local ordinances.”
The action in Omaha came just a few weeks after Douglas County’s health director, Adi Pour, said she wouldn’t enforce a mask mandate in Nebraska’s largest city due to anticipated legal challenge from Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office, according to the World-Herald.
Ricketts has said that a local mask mandate violates state law.
As local officials, Walsh said he and his colleagues have a responsibility to uphold state laws.
Mask-related discussions have been happening, he said, adding that he hasn’t heard any council members saying they — at this point — want to defy the ruling of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
“Every (council) study session we’ve been talking with (local) public health, and they have been updating us and we have been asking them their opinion — they are the pros, not us,” Councilman Joe Disalvo said. “I remember, someone at a study session asked if the (mask mandate) was even possible.
“More or less, Iowa state code doesn’t allow us to supersede the governor’s decision; much like the inverse, if the governor said you have to wear a mask, we couldn’t come back and say we wouldn’t.”
Councilman Chad Hannan echoed similar thoughts.
“With as many residents as we have that come and go from Omaha, I know it will be confusing for some people,” he said of whether one has to wear a mask or not. “But when we get into office, you swear to uphold the constitution of the United States and Iowa, so I think it would be negligent to just pick this as something that would undercut the state constitution.”
As for the municipalities around the state that have taken action to enforce mask wearing, Mayor Walsh said it will likely be tough to enforce if a person simply doesn’t want to comply.
“When and if you do (require masks), you have to think of the downstream realities,” Walsh said. “If the state says there’s no enforcement authority and you have an ordinance you can’t enforce, do you tell your local law enforcement to issue fines? Do you tell your local attorneys to prosecute and enforce those fines?
“In my mind, it’s more of a statement than a true enforcement mechanism.”
But, while at this time Walsh doesn’t see local enforcement happening, he encouraged residents to use common sense and cover their faces when out and about in the proximity of their neighbors, family and friends.
“I continue to emphasize that each and every person should wear a mask when out in public,” the mayor said. “At this point, though, based on the ruling by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, local government doesn’t have the authority to mandate a mask in Iowa.”
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