Dubuque County Board of Health recommends businesses, county government mandate masks, vaccinations

Dubuque County Board of Health members voted unanimously on Wednesday night to recommend that employers in the county require workers to wear masks and be vaccinated against COVID-19.

On top of that, the board recommended that masks be required in businesses and county government buildings.

This recommendation of mandates is the board’s strongest move since the Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds banned legal mandates by local governments.

Board members made their call after the county was classified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having “high” COVID-19 transmission — with more than 75% of positive cases in the past week identified as the delta variant.

“If we didn’t have a state law preventing us from making mask mandates, we are at the point where we would make a mask mandate,” said Board Member Sandra Larson, a retired registered nurse.

County Health Department Director Patrice Lambert pointed out that employers nationwide are increasingly requiring vaccinations for employees that can safely get them.

As an employer, it is believed the county can require its own workers to receive the vaccine and wear masks. However, the county can only recommend, not require, that private employers do the same.

“We cannot require anything. But businesses and organizations have that ability within their own staffing decisions,” Lambert said. “Many of the hospitals across the nation are requiring vaccinations.”

Both the MercyOne and UnityPoint hospital systems have announced that all staff must be vaccinated. That includes workers at MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center, MercyOne Dyersville Medical Center and UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital in Dubuque. 

Health Board Member Amy Crow Sunleaf said she hopes the county Board of Supervisors lends its support to the recommendation.

“With the blessing of Dubuque County, maybe that will be enough for businesses to follow through,” she said.

The board’s recommendations would require the Board of Supervisors’ approval.

Some uncertainty remains.

County Human Resources Director Dawn Sherman said she believes the county can require vaccinations of employees just like any other employer, but that the county would need to consult with County Attorney C.J. May III.

Sherman said it is clear that the county can require masks and social distancing among staff and visitors to county buildings, regardless of vaccination status, in keeping with recommendations from the CDC.

Lambert requested that the board’s recommendation for masks and social distancing be tied to the county’s transmission rate. The recommendation from the Dubuque County COVID-19 Incident Management Team was that if the county’s transmission rate decreases to “moderate” based on CDC measures, and stays there, that the mask recommendation be removed.

Board member and registered nurse Katie Jones said that could make the recommendation more palatable.

“When we did the mask mandate, people really latched onto those end dates, that they would be rewarded by doing things right,” she said.

The board included the Incident Management Team’s language in its recommendation.