As cases of COVID-19 began to surge again in the fall, no state went up more sharply than Iowa. Between the middle of October and the second week of November, the rate of new cases in the state increased by 500%, and all that was before Thanksgiving and the surge that hit most of the nation due to increased travel over the holiday period. Only Iowa didn’t see that holiday surge. There was a bump in cases at the start of November from those Thanksgiving dinners, and another in January that was timed just right to be the result of Christmas get togethers. But for the most part, cases in Iowa trended down from that mid-November peak, even as cases were continuing to grow over much of the nation.
Why did Iowa go down while other states were going up? As The Atlantic reports, the state benefited from a limited mask mandate, grudging put in place by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Along with that mandate came fresh limits on public gatherings, and a renewal of some business restrictions. The state benefited more from stores and local governments that encouraged mask use. And finally Iowa may have benefited most of all from “fear”—the fear generated by a case count that moved it into the #7 position overall when it came to cases per capita, a wave of deaths that followed not far behind.
But on Friday, Gov. Reynolds stepped in front of cameras to issue an executive order that not only ends the mask mandate, but fully reopens bars and restaurants, removes other social distancing guidelines, and invites Iowans to pretend that the pandemic is over. It’s not.
As of this week, the average daily new cases in Iowa works out to about 29 people out of every 100,000 coming down with COVID-19 each day. That puts Iowa in as the 18th lowest state. It’s certainly an improvement from where the state was two months ago. However, it’s also a higher level of both new cases and deaths than where Iowa was just before cases exploded in the fall.
As The Des Moines Register reports, Reynolds was extremely late to the game when it came to providing any restrictions for her state. For months, Iowa — like many Midwestern rural states — had avoided the kind of overwhelming outbreaks that hit the Northeast last spring, then swept across the South in the summer. Republican governors in these states gained brownie points with Donald Trump, and fame on Fox News, by frequently popping up to brag about how they hadn’t seen the level of disease that was plaguing coastal cities. Some of these governors, most notably South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, continued making these same claims even as their states climbed to worst of the worst status in the wave that hit the Midwest hard in the fall.
That Midwestern wave was born out of a number of factors, but the biggest one was simply the neglect that these governors showed. Noem even gave a boost to surrounding states when she encouraged the Sturgis motorcycle rally to go on as normal, resulting in cases that spread across the entire region. Based on the timing of that event in August in 2020, it may have set the stage for the entire surge that began a month later.
Noem continued to act like nothing was wrong. Even as overflowing Rapid City hospitals were airlifting COVID-19 patients to other states, she was back on Fox to sing her own praises for defending “freedom.” One of ever 500 people in her state are now dead, but surely their families appreciate all the TV time their lives bought for Kristi Noem.
Meanwhile, Reynolds put in place her limited mask mandate just as multiple studies were making it clear that states without those mandates were suffering the worst. A solid campaign of public attention from officials not named Kim Reynolds helped put Iowans on better behavior, and large parts of the state saw high mask use—especially in the larger cities. But the truth is, what happened in Iowa was no miracle. It was part of a larger regional trend that has benefited the entire upper Midwest, including Noem’s “freedom!” South Dakota.
So what did happen? Winter. As the season grew colder, Iowans shut themselves up indoors, decreased the level of travel, and stopped gathering at fairs and other large events. The exact same pattern has emerged in other states. It’s especially notable in North Dakota, where the rate of new cases dropped off even more quickly, and in Minnesota where the rate of cases at the beginning of December was 700% of where it stands today. The most casual map of where new cases are emerging in the nation at this point shows the same pattern repeating everywhere. Northern states are seeing a sharp decline as winter bears down, while warmer regions are continuing to see high rates of new cases.
What’s happening in Iowa isn’t special. It’s not even particularly good. The current level of new cases in Iowa puts it behind every neighboring state, that includes Illinois where large urban areas and early local spread made for one of the toughest fights against COVID-19 in the nation.
Iowa also isn’t looking good on the vaccine front. The state has opened up vaccination to a large part of its citizens, but it currently ranks as #35 when it comes to getting those vaccines into people’s arms. The vaccination rate in the state right now is about half that of some other states in the region, such as North Dakota.
Finally, this action comes just as state officials have confirmed that new, more contagious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been found in the state. The B.1.1.7 variant has been found in multiple locations, among patients that have not traveled outside the state. Which is a good indicator that community spread of this variant—which may also be more virulent—is well underway.
Kim Reynolds’ eliminating Iowa’s mask mandate and social distancing guidelines at this point is a pure political stunt, and it’s one that puts the citizens of her state at risk of resuming the surge that began in the fall. Still, she may get away with it. The Upper Midwest is settling into a serious bout of cold weather this week that will further curb travel. Even though businesses have reopened, it’s unlikely the next few days will bring a burst of fresh business to anything other than hardware stores selling ice melt.
With President Biden making multiple moves to increase the supply of vaccine, and more doses becoming available each week, Iowans may find that by the time they feel like stepping outside again, the world is a safer place. But Reynolds is doing them no favors. Her move on Friday benefits no one … except for her own ambitions.