Mayor: wearing masks shouldn’t be a controversy
In a county nearing the grave milestone of four million COVID-19 infections, masks have become a socially-charged and politicized debate.
Nearly 40 states have declared some form of face covering policy - with Iowa not among them. Even President Trump, who had long declined to wear a mask in public, tweeted a photo of himself covered Monday, suggesting he is “patriotic” to mask up. The administration has resisted a nationwide mask mandate, Trump wanting people to have “a certain freedom.”
To mask or not to mask - the topic has been one of the hottest on the streets and social media in Storm Lake this summer.
For Mayor Mike Porch, masks have never been a matter of politics.
“In my mind, it is the appropriate thing to do in order to mitigate the virus in our community. I’ve recommended several times that people should wear masks to protect themselves and also their neighbors.”
He said he would personally like to see the governor join other states that have issued some form of mask requirement for people in public. A local mask-up mandate has never been considered, however.
“Mandates should only be a last resort. They just drive a wedge in further between people,” Porsch said.
Who has the power?
Discussion is growing over who has the power to dictate health emergency actions. “If you tried a city mask mandate, I’m not sure you could pull it off,” the mayor said. “Do cities have the power to make those decisions? I guess I don’t know - the governor certainly doesn’t think so.”
“The Iowa League of Cities mayors discussion group has noted efforts such as Muscatine’s to mandate local controls beyond what the state dictates, and the pushback from the governor’s office. “If you really pushed the envelope on local control, I don’t know what would happen,” Porsch said.
Some, insist that the Iowa Constitution and multiple state Supreme Court rulings back up home rule and local safety decision-making. The state has so far insisted that the governor’s emergency management authority overrides local governments. State Code seems to disagree, saying, “An exercise of a city power is not inconsistent with a state law unless it is irreconcilable with the state law.”
If masks were ever mandated at any level, it would be hard to enforce, as was found with attempts to confine gatherings of 10 people or more earlier, Storm Lake Mayor Porsch feels. “I think our police have better things to do. It’s probably best to respectfully ask people to comply. No matter what you do on masks, by this point there is going to be a group that are going to wear masks and a group that aren’t going to wear them no matter what.”
Porsch has heard all the reasoning for opposing masks from people who think their rights are being taken away, or who refuse to believe the science on face protection.
“That’s why we live in America, everyone has a right to their opinion,” he says. “The way I look at it, you might not think you’re ever going to get sick, but you still need to look out for the elderly people and the folks who are in situations where they might not be so lucky if they catch it. You need to do your part to protect your neighbor, it’s the responsible thing to do.”
Porsch said that when he works at the HyVee pharmacy, he sees it as a matter of respect for customers and co-workers to wear a mask. “If you are going into a business or a public place and the people there are wearing masks, I believe I should also.”
Although businesses like Walmart have been widely criticized for recently putting policies in place requiring customers to use masks to enter, Mayor Porsch said he appreciates those decisions being made. He also said he appreciates the local restaurants and bars that did not rush to reopen their doors when the state allowed it.
City officials try to lead by example, too. “Even when we’re having a council meeting, we have masks on, and are six feet apart. Hopefully, we’re not doing that forever,” he said.
Trying to speak into microphones with a mask on makes the meetings often hard for listeners to understand, he admits. “It’s also really difficult to get public input on different matters when meetings have to be held with people over the phone - and there are a lot of matters where the city needs that element of input.”
Leadership is needed
Mayor Porsch isn’t satisfied that the state has done all it could.
“I think the governor should come out and make a stronger statement, for the greater good,” he says. “Nobody has really come out and said you need to keep taking these precautions, even if we are opening up. I haven’t hear the governor actually tell people they should still wear masks, social distance, and keep the gatherings down.”
As if on cue, the Iowa Department of Public Health launched a #StepUpMaskUp campaign Thursday, encouraging Iowans to follow important public health mitigation measures such as wearing a face covering when in public. Gov. Reynolds told Iowans in a recent video address.
Iowans, however, aren’t necessarily stepping up. The mayor pointed to recent Fourth of July celebrating. While nearly all events in Storm Lake were cancelled on the holiday, an estimated 3,000 people in around 700 boats gathered in an Okoboji party bay - risking taking an illness back to their home areas, Porsch said.
Porsch believes people in Storm Lake are doing a better job at protections such as masks and social distancing than he has seen in surrounding cities and counties. “When I’m going through the Lakes area, I hardly see any people with masks at all.”
He theorizes that awareness may be higher locally due to a big outbreak of COVID-19 cases at Tyson Pork in Storm Lake that received state and national news coverage, or because Storm Lake has hosted a very visible TestIowa site for two months.
Porsch realizes that nothing he says will make some people choose to protect themselves. “People see what they want to see when it comes to the news and social media. They will read into it whatever they want. Even if we get a vaccine, we’re going to have plenty of people who don’t take that vaccine because they’ve convinced themselves or been convinced that it isn’t real.”
He fears that the COVID-19 issues could especially become twisted in states with high-profile elections taking place this November.
As the academic year nears, schools and colleges face difficult decisions, and their communities can be impacted.
Storm Lake will see an influx in population as university students return to campus next month, some coming from areas that may have much higher current rates of new infections. “I think it will increase our exposure to some extent,” Porsch said. “The state of mind we all had at that age is that nothing can happen to me, so I’m not sure how interested in protections they are going to be.”
He stopped short of saying he would prefer to see Buena Vista University go online for the semester, saying he wouldn’t want to second-guess the university’s decisions without all the facts. The mayor said university officials had not spoken with city leaders about the decision to return to face-to-face classes next month.
Did Iowa open too early?
Porsch also said he respects the difficult decisions that have to be made at the state level, complicated by the fact that not all parts of the state have seen the same kind of outbreaks at the same time.
“I had calls from different news people when we had our big outbreak, but Storm Lake was different than Columbus Junction or Waterloo. They had outbreaks when all the governor’s mitigations were on and things were closed down. We had nothing when our outbreak was happening - all the bars were open, restaurants were open if they wanted to be.”
Having a statewide policy that would serve all areas well is a difficult assignment, he feels.
“I do think the state opened up a little too early, but it’s a tough call. When some areas were having huge outbreaks, we were having nothing in our part of the state, and yet we had all the same regulations that the outbreak areas had, and had to shut down all of our businesses the same as they did. And then when other parts of the state were flattening the curve, and the state was being opened back up, we were peaking,” Porsch said.
Yet if the state has decided to keep restrictions in place on a county-by-county basis based on their case numbers, there would have been problems, too. “If all the bars in your county are closed and they are open in the next county over, I guarantee you people would just drive over there.”
Buena Vista County remains the state’s highest for per-capita cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak began, but in recent weeks has settled into a pattern of single-digit new diagnoses while the state has continued to spike with hundreds of new cases daily.
Local Public Health Coordinator Pam Bogue expresses concern that a second wave of new cases is possible, noting that earlier, the outbreak began on the east side of the state and gradually moved to the more rural west, and now seems to be brewing up again in the east.
“Here, numbers are down, but we can’t let our guard down,” Mayor Porsch agrees. “We still need to respect each other, and do all those protection things we’ve been hearing about for so long.
“If we really want to open up, go to the ball games and get-togethers and all the events we are used to, we have to stay extra cautious now, or we are not going to have those opportunities. The economy can go on just fine if people are wearing masks. No, things may not seem the same, but people can still work and shop and do the rest of the things they need to do with that mask on.”
How much do masks help?
The science of masking will take time to air out. The situation is complicated by the fact that early in the epidemic, public health leaders were saying that masks were not necessary for the public. That changed when it became clear that infected people could spread the coronavirus even if they show no symptoms, or before symptoms set in.
Masks primarily protect people from the wearer, although there is some protective benefit for the masked person too. Lab testing has found that surgical masks block out 75 percent of respiratory-size droplets. Cloth masks that are fitted well provide 30-50 percent protection.
“I think we need a combination of [masks,] distancing, avoiding crowds, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces,” says Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech researcher in virus transmission. “Even if each of those individual measures is only partially effective, by the time you add them all on top of each other, you can achieve better numbers for reduction of transmission.
“From what I’ve seen, I would be comfortable sending my kids back to school if everyone’s wearing masks and they’re staying as far apart as possible,” Marr told National Public Radio.
On local social media after the Walmart mask requirement was announced, some people were suggesting a protest, to remove their masks in mass after being admitted to the store. Others said they would boycott stores that made them wear a mask. In a Pilot-Tribune check of the Storm Lake Walmart store just after the mask requirement was put in place, a couple of customers inside had no masks on, though nearly all were complying.
Why are so many refusing to wear masks?
“There’s a certain bravado of being angry and defying requirements,” says David Abrams, of the NYU School of Global Requirements.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted recently: “Some feel face coverings infringe on their freedom of choice - but if more wear them, we’ll have MORE freedom to go out.”
He added, “Ultimately it is a choice we make, and I hope it’s made based on the best available/current science, and a desire to do all we can to help others and ourselves/our communities. Like vaccines, the more who participate, the greater the impact.”