Dubuque County Board of Health members this week started the process to indefinitely extend the countywide mask mandate meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

County Board of Health members voted, 6-1, to schedule a public hearing on the extension, which would require a subsequent vote by the board and then approval by the county Board of Supervisors to go into effect.

The existing county mandate — which covers the entire county outside of the city of Dubuque — has a sunset date of March 1, though board members said the measure should remain as the pandemic continues.

“The public following it and the other mitigation strategies has gotten our numbers down to a manageable area for our community, our hospitals, clinicians,” Board of Health Member Katie Jones said Wednesday. “Why take something away that’s really working?”

Their action came days before Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced on Friday afternoon that she would end most restrictions that had been implemented with an aim of slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Iowa. The new rules take effect on Sunday, Feb. 7.

Dubuque County supervisors had approved their mask mandate in November days before Reynolds instituted less-restrictive statewide rules, and local officials have consistently argued that they have the right to pass such mandates — a stance that contradicts what the governor has asserted.

The current Dubuque County mandate requires people older than 2 to wear face coverings in interior public spaces and businesses, on public transportation or when using a private car service, and when outside if they cannot socially distance.

Business owners also are required to post signage indicating that patrons must wear face coverings inside and to have masks available for people without one.

“We put that March 1 (sunset date) in because the county mayors and the Board of Supervisors really pushed to have something solid for the public,” Jones said.

When the supervisors approved the mandate late last year, total positive cases in Dubuque County had reached 7,300 and were rising at a fever pitch, worrying hospital officials. The 14-day positivity rate had climbed to nearly 24%.

The county’s case total stood at 11,941 as of 5 p.m. Friday, but new and active cases have trended mostly downward in the past two months.

Board of Health members connected this trend with their desire to extend the mandate.

Board Member Diane Pape-Freiburger expressed concerns about upcoming holidays and spring break, especially with new, more infectious variants of the disease being reported in Iowa.

Board Member Dr. Bobby Koneru shared those concerns.

“When we first voted for this mask mandate, it was to make sure we reduced the rates of COVID infection and our hospitals were not overwhelmed,” he said. “And we’ve reached that goal. But there are a lot of variables, including these variants, and we also still have a significant portion of our population who are vulnerable and not vaccinated.”

As of Friday night, nearly 2,950 county residents had been fully vaccinated, while more than 6,900 more had received their first dose.

During the meeting this week, Pape-Freiburger moved that the mandate be extended indefinitely.

“What we are looking at here is changing the expiration to state, ‘This resolution shall remain in place until rescinded,’ period,” she said. “If we put another date in there, we’ll have to come back again if we have to extend it.”

However, several board members voiced concerns about the public perception of such an open-ended move.

“Some of the reservations I heard consistently were that community members felt that we were wielding this as a form of power and that once we got it, we weren’t going to let it go — regardless of what our goals actually were,” Koneru said.

Jones, too, said she worries about compliance without an end date or other goal to reach.

“I don’t want to discourage them or make them think we’re taking a power stance, even though we’re not,” she said.

This concerned Board Member Corey Young enough that he cast the only vote against the extension, though he said he supported the effort to keep the mandate for now.

“I think our public would be very hesitant and wary of us giving them what appears to be no end date,” he said.

Board Chairman Tom Bechen proposed extending the mandate until 70% of the county had been vaccinated.

However, County Health Department Executive Director Patrice Lambert said that with vaccine distribution being much slower than desired, that timeline could be too unpredictable. Pape-Freiburger pointed out that if the variants morph past the vaccines’ effectiveness, the mask mandate would need to be implemented again.

County Attorney C.J. May III had told board members that they must undertake the public hearing process and have the change approved by the Board of Supervisors for it to take effect.

County Supervisor Ann McDonough bemoaned the process by which this week’s vote occurred, saying the first time she heard about the board’s proposal was at the meeting.

“All the people want is the opportunity to engage with you,” she said.

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