The Dubuque County Board of Health voted unanimously tonight to advance the extension of the county's mask mandate, following a public hearing largely marked by opposition.
Board members voted to extend the mandate to June 15 or when people eligible for the vaccine in Phase 1B -- which includes those 65 and older -- who want to be vaccinated have been able to do so.
"The pandemic is not over yet, though we are in much better shape," Board of Health Member Dr. Hendrik Schultz said. "We are in a timeframe where we can accomplish vaccinating a large percent of the people who are vulnerable. … But we have to stay the course. Because we cannot eradicate the disease, we have to try to stay as close to the baseline as possible."
However, he also said the board should meet eight weeks before the June 15 sunset to re-assess the county's vaccination progress and COVID-19 case numbers and begin to reconsider the mandate at that time.
The extension must now be approved by the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors, which will meet Friday to vote on the matter before the current mandate's March 1 sunset.
Supervisors have said they support the move if benchmarks to sunset the mandate were added, as the Board of Health has done.
The current mask mandate requires that individuals older than 2 wear face coverings in indoor public spaces and outdoor public areas where social distancing is not possible. Businesses are required to post signage stating that they require masks and to provide masks for customers who do not bring their own.
More than 50 people attended the Board of Health's meeting virtually, and 23 of them provided verbal input. Most people who spoke opposed the extension.
“Health care should not be mandated by the government,” said Michael Heeren. “It should be between your doctor and you. I’m not against masks. I’m against the government telling me I have to wear one. If we don’t feel safe, we should surround ourselves with good people.”
Numerous people who spoke questioned the effectiveness of masks. Others questioned the board's authority or the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that data supports the wearing of masks to reduce COVID-19's spread and that the benefits of mask-wearing increases with community use. And studies have shown that currently circulating vaccines are effective, as well.
Others who spoke against the mandate cited concerns about mental health impacts. LeeAnne Breitbach, a substitute teacher in Dubuque Community Schools, said she sees the impacts the pandemic has had on children, including the requirement that they wear masks.
"I'm in the schools every day," she said. "I see what they're leading to -- fear and depression."
Board of Health Member Katie Jones said that she was also concerned about children's mental health as a parent.
"That is on our radar. At our next meeting, that should be placed on our agenda," she said. "A lot of people are concerned for their children. I am as well. But my kids would rather wear masks and be out amongst others and playing than locked down, isolated in our homes."
Meeting attendees who identified themselves as medical professionals spoke in favor of the mandate's extension.
"Our wants and needs mean nothing to a virus," said Lisa Tyler, a hospitalist for Grand River Medical Group. "We must continue to follow the recommendations of science. The single greatest factor that threatens us are mutations to forms that are not affected by our vaccines. Vaccines alone are not yet an immediate panacea, because they take up to two weeks to become effective. And, as we can tell here from the comments tonight, a lot of people do not believe in the vaccine."