City Manager Gerald Smith said he chooses to wear a mask in public places.

A majority of Jackson County residents visiting public places, such as retail establishments and grocery stores, are not wearing face masks, one of the key recommendations medical experts have advised to help prevent localized outbreaks of COVID-19. 

A random survey last week by the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press of 100 consecutive people entering Wal-Mart in Maquoketa found that the majority – two out of three – were not wearing masks of any kind, a finding that troubled Sarah Hobbs, the public health nurse in charge of managing Jackson County’s efforts to combat the virus.

Hobbs, who works for Genesis VNA and the Jackson County health department, said she is afraid some people are no longer exercising as much caution as they were earlier in the pandemic. 

“As a public health nurse, I am concerned that the precautions are taken less seriously now, and there will be more of Jackson County’s vulnerable population exposed to the virus resulting in severe illness and possibly death of these residents,” Hobbs said. 

In the weeks since government officials began easing lockdown restrictions and allowing businesses to reopen, they have faced the challenge of finding the right words to encourage citizens to take preventative measures against the virus while more fully participating in the economy.  

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has repeatedly said people of Iowa are going to have to figure out how to reopen the economy as safely as possible to protect both lives and livelihoods. Part of her strategy – recommended by the Iowa Department of Public Health and countless other medical experts – includes washing your hands frequently, not touching your face, staying 6 feet apart from other people, and wearing a face mask if proper social distancing is not possible.

In some parts of the country, government leaders who favor the wearing of masks in public have forced the issue.

In Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday signed an executive order requiring citizens to wear face coverings in public indoor settings to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The directive by Northam, a Democrat, drew fire from Republicans in the state’s legislature. 

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum, who is a Republican, made an emotional plea to residents to not shame those who choose to wear masks.

“If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support. They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life, who currently have COVID and they’re fighting,” Burgum said.

Closer to home, state Rep. Andy McKean, D-Anamosa, said he almost always wears a face covering in public, especially in high-density areas such as grocery stores. 

“You’re not going to be as apt to infect other people” by wearing a covering over the nose, mouth and chin, McKean said. “We cannot allow ourselves to have a false sense of security because (the state) is reopening.”

But not all area political leaders are taking such a cautious approach.

Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, said she typically does not wear a face covering in public, despite having helped make more than 4,000 of them. She will wear one “only as needed” and “believes it is a matter of personal preference” whether to wear one.

Maquoketa Schools Superintendent Chris Hoover also called wearing a mask a personal choice and said those who don’t wear one in public should not be judged. He said he and his family “have very rarely” gone out in public the last two months, so he does not wear a mask but he noted that when the Hoovers do leave home, they are “extremely vigilant” about social distancing, washing hands and sanitizing.

Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, also prefers social distancing to wearing a mask. However, she always carries masks with her “to put on when needed,” she said.

For some local leaders such as Maquoketa Area Chamber of Commerce Director Wendy McCartt, wearing a mask is a simple matter of health and social responsibility.

“I always wear a face covering when I’m in public and can’t ensure social distancing,” said McCartt, whose job puts her in contact with numerous people in the public and business. 

“I don’t wear a mask for my own protection,” McCartt said. “I wear the mask to protect others, as we all know that you can spread the virus while being asymptomatic.” 

For others, such as school superintendents Chris Fee and Tom Meyer, following CDC recommendations is a way to lead by example.

“I ask many of my essential staff in schools to wear a mask to protect the health of others, so I feel it is important to lead by example,” said Fee, who is the superintendent for Easton Valley and Andrew. He noted that it’s “a simple act” to protect others who could be more susceptible to the virus. 

Meyer, too, wears a face mask in public, especially when shopping and handing out school lunches.

DeWitt Mayor Don Thiltgen dons his mask when he’s shopping or picking up takeout orders – whenever he cannot maintain a safe distance from others.

“I wear it as a community leader,” Thiltgen said. “I need to set a good example.” He advises everyone to wear masks in public areas.

When leadership does not follow expert medical recommendations, the general public can be expected to act no differently, said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, who said she wears a mask in public.

Wolfe said it’s a responsible decision to wear a mask in public, but “it’s a choice as opposed to a requirement, and since our President often, almost always refuses to wear a mask, I’m not at all surprised that many people choose to follow his lead.” 

Wolfe chooses to wear a mask as often as possible in retail establishments, meetings or other indoor gathering places, “not to protect me from others, but because scientists and health professionals whom I trust have indicated that if I have the virus wearing a mask will help prevent me from spreading the virus to others.”

Maquoketa Mayor Don Schwenker declined to say if he wears a mask in public.

“I would answer these questions but understand that these seem like baited questions,” Schwenker wrote in an email. “If they are edited, they could be taken out of context and in this divided time could spark backlash.”

Schwenker was asked the same questions as other sources in this story. The questions were, “1. Do you wear a face covering in public? Why or why not? 2. Why do you think people are not wearing face coverings in public? And, do you think people should be wearing them?”