Wood: A Statewide Mask Mandate in Iowa Would be a “Low Hanging Fruit” Response for the Business Community

A week ago I took my first real “vacation” of the COVID-era, joining tens of thousands of Iowa State football fans in Las Vegas for the Cyclones game against UNLV. It was the first time that I’d been on an airplane or stayed in a hotel since 2019. I bought the tickets last Spring just as the free and effective vaccines were rolling out to the public and I—naively, in retrospect—thought that we’d be past this global health crisis by now or certainly trending in a different direction.

From the minute that I jumped on the parking shuttle at the Des Moines airport on Thursday until the point that it dropped me back off on Sunday, I wore a mask pretty much at all times that I was inside a building or vehicle, removing it only when eating or drinking. The FAA is using federal authority to require face coverings on airplanes and in airports (they are pretty serious about it) and Las Vegas falls under a Nevada statewide mandate.

I wore a mask more in those four days than I ever have before, including when we had a limited mask requirement here in Iowa last winter. Yes, my ears hurt after a few hours. Yes, I had to speak louder than I wanted to when talking to people. Yes, it made some pretty routine things awkward. I get that wearing a face covering isn’t an enjoyable experience for anyone—I don’t like it, either—but I also realized this weekend that the experience is not that bad.

Despite the statewide mandate, there were plenty of people in Las Vegas not wearing masks or at least not wearing them correctly. However, a majority of people seemed to follow the rules most of the time and it made me think: if a significant percentage of the people are masked up at any given time in a city and that is reducing COVID transmission is it not worth the minor hassle and discomfort? I’d like to think we all believe that we have an inherent duty as humans to care about the welfare of each other but, more practically, all of our lives will be a lot less stressful and complicated after we get this virus under control.

Did you know that the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority monitors COVID levels in our sewage? Axios reported last week that COVID levels detected this month are more than 20 times the levels they detected in July. 

Assuming it’s not practicable for most of the world to retreat into our homes and distance at all times (again), we have just two real tools, as individuals, to fight the spread of COVID: getting vaccinated to reduce the number of potential hosts for the virus and wearing masks to reduce transmission in case we’re still carriers. That’s it. Why aren’t we doing both?

It was pretty clear to see that the existence of the Nevada mask requirement put positive social pressure on people, small businesses, all the many casinos, and one very large NFL stadium, to participate in a joint statewide mitigation effort. That social pressure showed up in the form of reminders everywhere you looked—Allegiant Stadium even had ushers walking through the aisles with “masking is required” signs—and masks were freely available at most doors I walked through. It wasn’t enforced in a heavy handed way, I never saw any police or security guards detaining unmasked individuals, yet it seemed to be working. It was a strategy to enact a change. While I’m sure there will always be some percentage of people who won’t comply, in Las Vegas those rebels were certainly the outliers.

It’s very much the opposite of Iowa. In our state, it feels like the social pressure is working to dissuade people from wearing masks—those that do are certainly the minority here—and Governor Reynolds’ staunch policy of “individual choice” at all times only seems to push that pressure in the wrong direction.

At my business, Gravitate Coworking, our staff have chosen to wear masks to protect our members and each other. We encourage our members and guests to wear them, too, but we don’t require them. Given my obvious support for mask wearing—in reality my support is for any number of measures to get us past this crisis, masking is just low hanging fruit—I’m sure this seems hypocritical to some. I’m conflicted about it, too. The reason we don’t require masks is that we, as a single company, are not large enough to make a difference on our own. We’d just be a masked-up desert island in a mask-free ocean. If I were to implement such a policy I’d only be inviting consternation, facing a potential loss of revenue and putting my staff on the front lines of having to enforce a policy here that is both the exception and something seemingly discouraged by our state leaders (by practice if not by word).

Masking works when the whole community adopts the same policy. It would be tough for one casino on the Las Vegas strip to have the policy while countless others don’t require the same. By implementing a statewide policy, Nevada’s businesses have the cover of a government looking out for the best interests of their visitors and residents as well as an equal playing field in their industry. As a small business owner in Iowa, I’d love to get that same cover from our government. From my anecdotal experience, alongside an estimated 30,000 Iowa State fans, very few allowed the Nevada mask requirement to hold them back from traveling to Las Vegas for the weekend. 

If the communities where Gravitate has workspaces were to implement a universal masking strategy, we’d require masks today. In Iowa, the ability to create such a policy cannot be done at the local level (city or county government), it can only be implemented by Gov. Reynolds. What our state is doing right now clearly isn’t enough, as the sewage static shows COVID is spreading here exponentially. Our business community needs the Governor to step up, lead us like Governors are doing in other states, and create a strategy that we can all participate in to move this crisis along.


Geoff Wood is the founder of Gravitate Coworking, a workplace community for entrepreneurs, freelancers and remote workers in Des Moines, Windsor Heights, Jefferson and Cedar Falls. As part of his role as a community builder, he’s the publisher of entrepreneurial news blog Clay & Milk and a frequent conference speaker and event organizer. He’s been helping share the story of, and discuss the issues in, the Iowa entrepreneurial community since 2009.