Wapello County signs

Chad Drury/The Courier

Signs, posted in both English and Spanish, grace the front door at the Wapello County courthouse, detailing procedures for getting into the building. The county has closed all its buildings to the public indefinitely, unless residents call ahead. Residents are required to wear masks inside all county buildings.

OTTUMWA — Wapello County Supervisor Jerry Parker was simply pitching a hypothetical, and nothing more.

Before the supervisors adjourned their weekly meeting Tuesday, Parker turned toward County Attorney Reuben Neff, and asked a simple question.

"If the Board of Supervisors said, 'In Ottumwa, you have to wear a mask,'" Parker asked, "... we haven't had thoughts of doing it, but is that enforceable?"

Countywide mask mandates are rare in Iowa, and most call for wearing masks in public places and indoors where social distancing can't be maintained. COVID-19 infections are decreasing across most metrics since Gov. Kim Reynolds tightened mitigation requirements Nov. 17.

Still, even with vaccines ready for distribution on a limited basis later this month, there will be a gap to fill until there are widespread vaccinations.

"We don't know what's down the road, and we want to be prepared," said Parker, who also noted the county generally couldn't pass an ordinance affecting the city of Ottumwa unless the community didn't already have the ordinance.

Reynolds hasn't recognized county or city mandates and often disapproves of them. But Neff, who said he'd look into the matter for the county, noted counties "have done them anyway, but I haven't seen any legal disputes between the state and those counties."

At least seven counties adopted some sort of mask mandate. Locally, Jefferson County's supervisors passed a resolution on a 2-1 vote Nov. 23 requiring masks to be worn inside the courthouse, while Van Buren County has left it to "individual discretion."

On the other hand, Clay County and Dickinson County, in northwest Iowa, adopted countywide mandates last week, and several other counties passed them in late October and throughout November. One of the more populous counties to issue a mandate — Dubuque County — passed its resolution Nov. 18, lasting until March 1, but conditions could change that.

Linn, Story, Wright and Johnson counties also have passed mask mandates.

Wapello County has closed its offices to the public indefinitely; anyone that needs to get into the courthouse must call ahead of time, and masks are required inside. The City of Ottumwa has followed the same guidelines.

"I've already had a call from someone saying we were opening the courthouse (Thursday)," Parker said. "They said that was the information that was out there. We've not discussed when that is going to happen, because none of us know."

Currently, the county's 17.4% positivity rate over the last two weeks (through Thursday) is 39th out of 99 counties, but is at 14% in the last seven days.

A countywide mandate is not always an easy sell, either, and has shown to be a wedge issue. Mayors within counties haven't always been on board. Though Dubuque County unanimously passed the measure last month, it did not in September, when it was first suggested by the county board of health, according to the Telegraph-Herald newspaper.

The two-week positivity rate in Dubuque County is under 13%.

In Clay County, the vote was 3-2 to institute the mandate, but unanimous in neighboring Dickinson County. In western Iowa's Harrison County, a mandate passed 2-1 in late October. 

"In all fairness, there are people who are opposed to this," Bill Leopold, chair of the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors, told KICD Radio in Spencer, Clay County's county seat. "And so there are theoretical studies where masks don't help."

Part of the problem is the enforcement of a mandate. Neff said violation of an ordinance is a simple misdemeanor. In Clay County, there is no penalty for going maskless in public spaces.

"Typically that doesn't carry much enforcement power," Neff said. "Sometimes fines can carry some convincing power. To a business that can have a great effect."

Parker stressed the county isn't anywhere near issuing a mandate, but the thought piqued his curiosity.

"We kind of pride ourselves on looking ahead," Parker said. "We're looking to see what the spike from Thanksgiving is, and then Christmas. The mask seems to be where if 80% of the people wore a mask, we'd correct this in a month or something.

"If that's even remotely true, we should wear a mask," he said. "I think we need to know if we forced people to do it, if it would be effective, or if it would be a waste of time."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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