The Clay County Board of Supervisors approved by a 3-2 vote a regulation that requires people to wear face coverings when in public and unable to stay six feet from others and when in certain indoor public settings.
The regulation applies to all townships and incorporated cities in Clay County. However, those municipalities can opt out by approving ordinances of their own.
The regulation will go into effect following publication in the Spencer Daily Reporter. It contains no penalty for violations.
Supervisors voted on the regulation following last week’s Clay County Board of Health public hearing. The board of health voted to recommend supervisors approve the regulation.
Public health officials urge approval
At the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, Dr. David Keith, a member of the Clay County Board of Health, urged supervisors to approve the regulation.
“The best we can do is to invite and unfortunately enforce a mask mandate,” Keith said via Zoom. “It reduces the rate of transmission by 70% and right now, at the rate we are doing things, it’s not looking good.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) has reported 1,195 cases of COVID-19 in Clay County. Of those cases, 635 have recovered. There have been four deaths in Clay County.
The 14-day average positivity rate for the county is 20.7%. Experts, such as those at Johns Hopkins University, have stated that a high positivity rate means there likely are high rates of transmission in the community and that there likely are more people who have contracted COVID-19 but have not yet been tested.
Positivity rates above 5% are considered too high.
Keith said COVID-19 has affected Spencer Hospital in ways he has never seen locally.
“I’ve never seen a disease in this community taking up half our hospital or more,” he said.
During the meeting, Spencer Hospital President Bill Bumgarner said the hospital currently has 16 COVID-19 patients. There are 17 COVID-19 patients from Clay County who are currently hospitalized, according to IDPH.
Before the vote, Bumgarner warned that “healthcare resources are being strained.” He said hospital staff are working extra shifts and overtime.
“These folks are tough,” Bumgarner said. “They’re dedicated, but they’re not made of iron. We need folks’ help.”
Bumgarner said the supervisors’ decision would come down to “leadership.”
“With all respect and with all positive intent, I’m asking you, as guardians of public health in Clay County, to do your jobs,” he said.
Supervisors debate before vote
Supervisors Burlin Matthews and Art Hamrick noted the high volume of calls and emails they had received regarding the face coverings regulation. Both said most who contacted them were in favor.
“They’re adamant that we need to do something,” Matthews said. “So, that’s where I’m at.”
While receiving public comment, the board heard from two residents opposed to the regulation. One was Rebecca Moran, a small business owner in Spencer.
“The only thing this regulation will accomplish is to divide and separate this community,” Moran said.
She later said that the regulation isn’t “about health and safety. This is about compliance and control.”
“This will only serve to increase conflict in an already stressful environment,” Moran added.
Before the vote, Dr. Keith reiterated his position and noted his expertise.
“I take care of people and I give the recommendations,” he said. “If you want to be healthy, you ask me. If I need help with my car, I ask (his mechanic).”
Keith said the issue of wearing masks is not political.
“It is not partisan. It is not political,” he said. “The only reason it became political is because our leadership at the highest level made it political.”
Supervisor Barry Anderson said the board had to take information from everyone “and balance that for all citizens of Clay County.”
“I think all of us want to get from Point A to Point B,” he said. “It’s just how do we get there.”
Anderson said he wanted the board to draft a proposal or recommendation with more “positive wording.”
“I would by far rather put out my own proclamation and say this is what we feel, strongly what people need to do,” he said.
He said issuing a face covering requirement felt like “grasping at straws” and questioned whether the mandate would be “a silver bullet.”
“I don’t think that there is a silver bullet and I don’t think the fact that a small amount of people won’t comply should stop us,” Bumgarner said in response, adding that he believed the regulation could reduce hospitalizations in Spencer.
Like Anderson, Hamrick also mentioned potential resistance in the community to requiring face coverings, specifically in the agriculture community.
“I know a lot of farmers who you couldn’t get them to put one on if you wanted to.”
Hamrick guaranteed that “people will rebel.”
Moments later, Matthews asked Hamrick why he was wearing a mask at the meeting, which the supervisors attended in person.
“Because it’s been brought to my attention that there’s a problem in Spencer, Iowa,” Hamrick said.
Later in the meeting, Matthews said he was skeptical there would be a large amount of resistance.
As the debate between supervisors came to a close, the focus turned toward the vote. Supervisors voted twice, first to accept the board of health’s recommendation and then again to take action on the regulation.
The supervisors voted 5-0 to accept the recommendation. Matthews then made a motion to approve the face covering regulation, which was seconded by Supervisor Randy Swanson.
Anderson then made a motion to amend that sought to instead “write a positive recommendation that steps up from the governor’s loopholes and closes some of those loopholes in a positive manner.”
One of his worries was that people may not know whether to follow Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds mask regulation or the county’s.
Although that motion received a second from Hamrick, it was decided that the motion was out of order and that a vote on Matthews’ motion needed to be addressed first.
Matthews, Swanson and chair Dan Skelton then voted in favor of approving the regulation, while Anderson and Hamrick voted in opposition.
Regulation provides some exemptions, no penalty for violations
The proposed regulation, as presented to the board of health before any amendments were made, can be found on Spencer Hospital’s website.
The public settings mentioned specifically in the regulation include:
- Grocery stores
- Hardware stores
- Retail stores
- Other public settings that are not a person’s place of residence when they are with people who don’t live in the household
- Outside when maintaining six feet of distance is not possible
- Public transportation or private car services, such as taxis, ride shares or carpools
People inside places of worship are exempt from the face covering requirement. According to the proposed regulation, other exemptions include:
- People traveling in personal vehicles alone or with household members
- People who are exercising “at moderate or high intensity”
- People seated at a bar or restaurant “in the process of eating or drinking.”
- People who must temporarily remove the mask to obtain services that would require the face mask be removed
- Children younger than two years old
- People with trouble breathing due to medical conditions, on oxygen therapy or on a ventilator
The face covering requirement will be lifted when Clay County’s 14-day average positivity level has fallen under 5%.
Supervisors will also regularly review the effectiveness of the regulation and determine if it is still needed.