Dubuque County supervisors decline to back health board’s recommendations to businesses on masks, vaccinations

Dubuque County supervisors on Monday chose not to join the county Board of Health in recommending that local employers require COVID-19 vaccinations among staff and the wearing of masks by customers.

Supervisors likewise chose not to require vaccinations of county government staff, despite another recommendation by the county Board of Health.

Last week, the nine-member health board unanimously made those recommendations. The votes came at the urging of the Dubuque County COVID-19 Incident Management Team — made up of public health and emergency staff from Dubuque County and the City of Dubuque — who were concerned with the current trajectory of the ongoing pandemic.

“The Incident Management Team is very concerned about two major factors: the delta variant — which is more easily transmitted from one person to another — and people who are not vaccinated,” said county Health Department Director Patrice Lambert, who is also a member of the team. “We are looking at what happened a year ago. Can we be one step ahead, with that delta variant being so much more transmissible?”

At this point in 2020, Dubuque County was more than one month into a steep incline in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

One year later, more than 64% of Dubuque County residents who are at least 12 years old have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The Legislature also has passed a law, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, that bans local governments from mandating masks or vaccinations among their residents.

“Your (Board of Health’s) recommendations should stand on their own as well-reasoned,” said county Supervisor Ann McDonough. “Our role is different and somewhat constrained.”

She said she did not believe the Board of Supervisors had the authority, because of the state’s decision, to even recommend that private businesses require vaccinations of their staff.

“The Board of Health can recommend anything they want,” McDonough said. “But I think it is beyond what the Board of Supervisors can do.”

Supervisor Harley Pothoff also had no interest in even recommending that businesses require masks or vaccinations.

“If Menards or Steve’s Ace Hardware wants to require masks, they can,” he said. “But the vaccines are readily available. Mandating this stuff is ridiculous as far as I’m concerned.”

McDonough said the business community was not coming to her with this.

“I don’t have any employers asking me to do this,” she said. “They are worried that every time we do something with this (the pandemic) they have to worry about their relationship with their employees.”

Pothoff also opposed the county mandating that county staff be vaccinated.

“I’m definitely against this mandatory vaccine for county employees or anywhere,” he said.

That was a stance shared by Sheriff Joe Kennedy, who first expressed his respect and admiration for the Board of Health and Incident Management Team’s handling of the pandemic to date.

“As a department head with the county … I think that when it comes to requiring employees to be vaccinated, when I look at my staff and how difficult it is to find people to do our jobs, I don’t want people to leave,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going to happen — people will dig their heels in and just quit.”

Kennedy said that even if the county board decided to mandate vaccinations among county employees, he would not require his employees to be vaccinated if they chose not to do so.

Supervisor Jay Wickham said he was not interested in taking action on the Board of Health recommendations.

So, the Board of Health’s recommendations stand as the official word of the county’s appointed public health entity but with no official support from the Board of Supervisors.

“We are trying to protect the community by this measure,” said Diane Pape-Freiburger, a career nurse who is the vice chairwoman of the Board of Health.

The supervisors’ moves aligned with the sentiment of several members of the public who spoke in opposition to the Board of Health’s recommendations.

Sageville Mayor Wayne Kenniker, a regular opponent to the county’s COVID-19 mitigation measures, presented a petition from more than 360 people opposing the health board’s recommendations. He said the Board of Health only ever presents “one side” in regards to the pandemic response.

Pape-Freiburger argued that the Board of Health has studied “both sides” and acts on the one based on scientific background.