DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Plenty of Republican governors initially rejected mask mandates, but few have held to their skepticism amid soaring coronavirus cases with the tenacity of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Reynolds scoffs at calls for a statewide mask order, calling them “feel-good” actions, and refuses to let city officials enforce local mandates, even as the small, largely rural state maintains one of the highest COVID-19 positivity rates and has topped 1,200 dead. While she implores residents to wear masks while indoors when social distancing isn't possible, she has said not everyone believes they're effective and frequently is photographed mingling at crowded events without a mask.
“I think the goal is to do what we can to reduce the spread of the virus,” Reynolds said last week. “I believe that is the end goal and that we can get there without a mask mandate. I believe that and that’s what I’m going to consistently do.”
It's a stand that has frustrated public health experts and exasperated some mayors, but unlike governors in other states, Reynolds has made clear she's not budging.
Reynolds' argument against a mandate boils down to three points: a mask requirement can't be enforced, other factors are to blame for rising virus cases and people should have the freedom to make their own choices.
“I trust Iowans to do the right thing, and I think they are doing the right thing,” she said.
Faced with rising virus cases, other Republican governors took a decidedly different approach.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott had for months said the state couldn't order people to wear masks, but in July after virus cases and hospitalizations soared, he ordered that face coverings be worn in public throughout most of the state.
It was a similar story in Mississippi, where Gov. Tate Reeves resisted a mandate before issuing an executive order requiring masks at public gatherings and in retail stores during August. He later extended the order through Sept. 14.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also reversed course last month when he signed an executive order allowing local mask ordinances to be enforced on public property and on private property if the owner agrees.
The governors of North Dakota and South Dakota also have rejected mask mandates, but their stands are now being tested as coronavirus cases increase in both states.
In Iowa, calls to require masks have increased and now include the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The group late last month noted Iowa had the highest rate of new cases in the nation per 100,000 people and found more than a quarter of Iowa's 99 counties had high levels of transmission. Those rates have since dropped slightly.
The task force called for a statewide mask mandate, closure of bars across the state, restricted restaurant attendance and limits on crowds to no more than 10 people in the worst 28 counties.
Reynolds closed bars in six counties but ignored the mask recommendation along with most of the other guidance.
Chantel Sloan, an associate professor at Brigham Young University who specializes in infectious disease epidemiology, said the problem with not imposing a mandate is that only 15% to 20% noncompliance in a population is enough to cause significant preventable outbreaks. States with mask mandates and careful testing and contact tracing to isolate those with the virus could see significant improvement in spread in three to four weeks, she said.
“I continually believe that we have this ability to unify if we choose and that this is completely up to us as a society,” she said. “It’s just a matter of compassion.”
Photos of Reynolds at events without a mask frequently circulate on social media. Although Reynolds said it's often a case of her removing her mask only for a quick photo, some pictures show her with no mask while mingling with people, hugging individuals and holding conversations well within 6 feet of others.
“We’ll take them off for not even a minute, snap a shot, and then we’ll put them back on,” Reynolds said. “I try to lead by example, but remember if you can, social distance. But if you can’t, you should have one ready and you should put it on."
Often in the photos, Reynolds is at Republican events, where few people are wearing masks.
A survey released Sept. 10 by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that while 80% of respondents said wearing a mask helps to limit the spread of coronavirus, more than a third of Republicans said wearing a mask is harmful. That compared to 7% of Democrats and 17% of independents who said masks could be harmful.
The survey found that 32% of Republicans said masks do not help limit the spread of coronavirus while just 3% of Democrats and 17% of independents had that belief.
The survey of 1,199 adults had a statistical margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample, 7 percentage points for the Republicans sample and 6 points for the Democratic and independents samples.
Despite such doubts, health experts say mask effectiveness is no longer a question. More than 300 Iowa doctors and other medical professionals sent Reynolds a letter in July pleading for a mask mandate and held a demonstration on the steps of the Iowa Capitol to emphasize the need for a mask requirement.
The CDC also recommends masks, saying they are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings.
Officials in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, the state's largest cities, have instituted mask requirements along with at least eight other cities, even though Reynolds insisted the rules couldn't be enforced because she hasn't issued a statewide order.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said he believes the mask requirement he enacted on Aug. 26 helped lead to a drop in the city's 14-day positivity rate from 20% to around 12%.
“It isn’t about politics to me, it’s about science,” he said. “Taking a political position on it I think is wrong. My obligation as mayor to me is number one protecting the health and well-being of our citizens."