BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – The Lee County Board of Health voted Thursday morning to create a regulation requiring masks be worn in public by all county residents.
The move was approved unanimously after a lengthy discussion among board members, and Lee County Attorney Ross Braden at the board’s regular meeting.
Braden told he board he wasn’t advocating for any position on the masks, but was there to help answer legal questions regarding a mandate.
Lee County Health Department Administrator Michele Ross said she recommended issuing a position statement that all county residents be “requested” to wear masks while out in public. LCHD issued a similar position statement advising against any large scale events back in August.
“My opinion is that if we start with a position statement and release it from the Board of Health, then we don’t have to do the (legal requirements),” Ross said.
But board member Dr. Philip Caropreso said a request would not get the desired result.
“The word request is inadequate to get the desired results. People would look at the word ‘request’ and say, ‘Oh that’s fine’ and ignore it,” Caropreso said.
Caropreso said medical science shows through analysis that masks play a significant role in reducing the serious nature of the virus.
“They cannot totally prevent the disease, but they reduce the consequences of being infected,” he said.
Board member Paula Speikermeier asked how the regulation, if approved, would be enforced.
Braden referenced language in a regulation currently in place in Johnson County that says enforcement would have to be made by county law enforcement officers, which would put the burden on the Lee County Sheriff’s Department.
Ross said she had spoke with Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber on Wednesday and Weber wasn’t supportive of the enforcement. Lee County Supervisor Matt Pflug, told the board Weber is saying he doesn’t have the manpower to dedicate to the enforcement.
“I think you’re going to see him have a position on this,” Pflug said.
When contacted Thursday morning following the vote, Weber said that his department will not enforce the regulation.
“I can speak for all law enforcement in Lee County and we will not be enforcing a mask regulation,” Weber said. “We’ll be leading by example and we’ll be wearing our masks, but it’s still America and people have a choice.”
Caropreso also said he respected what the sheriff had to do, but said figuring out a way needs to be the position of officials, not the other way around.
“We’re endangering our population and we’re not getting the support we need,” he said.
Pflug suggested the board might consider holding a round table with municipalities in the county to try and garner support for the regulation.
Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld left his son’s graduation in August because he wouldn’t don a face mask as requested by school officials.
The regulation is being drawn up by Ross with the assistance of Braden, and the Board of Health is required by Iowa code to hold public hearings on the enforceable regulation, publish the regulation, and have it approved by a resolution of the Lee County Board of Supervisors.
Braden said if supervisors don’t approve the resolution, it would not become a regulation.
Pflug told the board, he didn’t foresee supervisors voting down the regulation. Supervisor Gary Folluo said Tuesday at a workshop that he asked Ross and Braden to look into the legalities of issuing a mandate for mask coverings. Supervisor Rick Larkin said the county needed to move quickly to set up a mask mandate. Along with Pflug’s support that would set up a majority of the supervisors in favor of the regulation.
Supervisor Chairman Ron Fedler hedged on the idea of a mandate saying regulations are only as good as they are enforceable.
Pflug said even with people who won’t wear a mask, the regulation could catch many others that aren’t now, but would if mandated.
“It’s not like this thing is going on forever and ever. You’re not cutting their hands off, and you are gonna have the ones who aren’t going to wear it. But you will catch a lot of folks that will abide by it,” he said.
“I think you’re doing the right thing.”
As of Thursday morning, the counties numbers continued to work back down, with a 14-day positivity rating of 16.7, down from 18% just a week ago. The county has had 450 cases to date with 105 reported as recovered, five deaths and an overall positivity rating of all those tested at 9.3%, or just under 1 in 10 tested confirm positive for the coronavirus.