BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Lee County officials are carefully eyeing a potential move to mandate masks through an enforceable health regulation.
At a workshop following Tuesday’s regular Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Lee County Health Department administrator Michele Ross said she would bring the idea to the Board of Health at their meeting on Thursday.
Supervisor Gary Folluo asked Ross and Lee County Attorney Ross Braden to look into possible county regulations for masks to help reduce the substantial spread locally.
“What we’ve done in the past has helped but certainly hasn’t gone far enough. And if we can protect citizens of Lee County by doing this than I think its a good thing,” Folluo said.
Braden said any regulation should be born out of the Lee County Department of Health and then approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Iowa Code 137.104 gives local health departments authority to “make and enforce such reasonable rules and regulations not inconsistent with law and the rules of the state board as may be necessary for the protection and improvement of the public health”.
As of Tuesday morning, Lee County has 14-day positivity rating of 17.8%, the 7th highest in the state, and has 427 confirmed cases. The state’s Iowa Department of Public Health website coronavirus.iowa.gov and the Lee County Health Department both show current totals of 427 confirmed cases in the county. However, LCHD reported 53 from 3:30 p.m. Friday to 3:30 p.m. Monday, while the IDPH is showing 36 for all four days Friday-Monday.
Ross said that 1 in 80 of the 4,707 county residents who’ve been tested has tested positive for 9.1%.
She said the surge began in August and has a lot to do with people who are asymptomatic going about normal routines without wearing masks or engaging in social distancing.
Supervisor Matt Pflug asked Ross if she could explain why the numbers are so high currently.
“Our biggest concern is that people aren’t choosing to social distance, and are not wearing masks especially in those situations when they aren’t social distancing,” she said.
“People continue to gather in groups of 10 or more and not social distance. We’ve been trying to promote to the public to avoid large crowds and large gatherings of people and choose to have responsible behaviors.”
Braden said in Johnson County, another hot spot for the virus with the return to campus at the University of Iowa, the health department used it’s regulatory authority under Iowa code to institute a mask mandate.
“The Johnson County Board of Health exercised their regulatory authority on a perceived need in assisting in curbing the novel coronavirus in Johnson County,” Braden said.
“Their health department actually exercised its authority in coming up with a regulation that was then approved by their Board of Supervisors, which is slightly different than the Board of Supervisors coming up with an ordinance.”
Any regulation proposed by the county board of health would require a public meeting and a publishing of the regulations, before it could be approved.
Supervisor Rick Larkin said he would support such a move to mandate masks in the county.
“I’ve had several people stop me and ask why we haven’t enacted a mask ordinance requiring people to wear it, and I think there is some sentiment for us doing that no matter how it comes to us,” Larkin said.
“I would support doing whatever we have to do to get it done, but I think we need to move pretty quick on it.”
Braden said a regulation offered up by the health department, according to his research on the topic, wouldn’t be inconsistent with current Iowa law.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Fedler said law is only as good as it can be enforced and he said he believes it would be difficult for the sheriff’s department to start writing tickets for people not wearing face masks.
“If this was something Lee County was looking at, in my opinion it should come from the health department as opposed to an ordinance from the Board of Supervisors.,” Fedler said.
“There’s a legal argument that could be made that Board of Supervisors does have the authority to institute an ordinance for wearing a face mask, but it is much more genuine coming from the local Health authority through it’s regulatory authority.”
“The Board of health would issue citations based on observations taken by law enforcement. That’s about as far as we would go with it,” Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber said.
Johnson County’s health regulation requires every person wear a face covering when out in public where they can’t stay six feet away from others. It also requires masks inside any public setting including grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, retail outlets, schools and other public settings that aren’t places of residence.
The Johnson County regulation also provides exceptions for when someone is traveling along in a vehicle or with household members, exercising, seated at a restaurant or bar, obtaining services where the removal of the mask is required or wear federal or state law prohibits wearing a face covering.
Anyone younger than 2 is also exempt and those with compelling health related issues.
Violation of the regulations are met with a minimum fine for a simple misdemeanor. Subsequent offenses are punishable by up to the maximum fine for a simple misdemeanor, under the Johnson County face covering regulation.