Welcome to Iowa: A state that just doesn’t care if you live or die.
It didn’t start out this way. Iowa’s first recorded cases came March 8, from a cruise to Egypt sponsored by a local bank. And at first, it seemed Reynolds would take the public health threat seriously: She shut down schools and many businesses and recreational activities, and people did their best to stay home. Yet Iowa was one of only five states that did not issue a stay-at-home order last spring. And it was confusing: Indoor dining was closed, but Hobby Lobby was open. Schools were shut, but in early April, the governor allowed a 600-person horse auction to continue. My dad, who works at a hospital in Texas, mailed me N95 masks because I couldn’t find any in the state. My daughter’s friends still held their birthday parties.
As the pandemic unfolded, the policy contradictions began to take on a cruel coherence, making clear whose safety mattered. Initially, Iowa’s biggest outbreaks were at food processing plants, which employ a large amount of immigrant labor. At first, the plants shut down; farmers, with no market for their hogs, euthanized them. Then a moral calculus was made: pork before people. Plants opened up. The governor praised the companies. In August, a lawsuit filed by families of workers alleged that management had lied to them about the risk and forced them to work without adequate personal protective equipment. Plant managers were taking bets on how many workers would get sick. The state still hasn’t reported how many food processing plant employees’ lives have been lost in this gamble.
It only got worse from there. The state-sanctioned denialism was made especially obvious by the way we treated those whose safety we supposedly held dearest: our children. Iowa was the only state in the nation that allowed high school students to play baseball and softball; at the time, the state was averaging between 250 and 300 cases a week.
Sara Anne Willette, who contracted with the Iowa State Education Association to track coronavirus data in schools, told me that she got threats every time she reported on cases in high school sports. A teacher in southwest Iowa said that her high school had a culture of not testing but that kids were calling out sick without explanation: “No one wants to ruin a game for the whole team.” Even as the cases rose, sports never stopped, and the state did not track if there was a connection.
I looked at pictures from the state volleyball tournament from October, held in my city: maskless players, maskless fans, everyone acting like no one was dying. It was like the whole state agreed to let high school students contract a deadly virus while everyone cheered from the sidelines. Meanwhile, at news conferences, the governor would remind us frequently that deaths were occurring in older individuals or individuals with underlying conditions, as if this justified the loss of their lives.
The lifting of restrictions now seems propelled by superficially good news: falling case counts and rising vaccine availability. But any true look at the state of the pandemic in Iowa reveals that the rationale is reckless and delusional.
Cases have decreased by more than 30 percent over the past 14 days, which seems good until you factor in the surge from the winter holidays and realize that the numbers remain higher than they were over the spring and summer. Yes, coronavirus vaccines exist now — but Iowa ranks as the 47th-worst state for per capita vaccine distribution from the federal government and 46th-worst in the rate of administering doses to residents.
The distribution patterns reveal which people the state considers disposable and which worth saving: According to state data, Hispanic people account for 6 percent of the population and 3 percent of covid-19 deaths in Iowa, but less than 2 percent of vaccinations. Black people make up 4 percent of the state’s population and approximately 2.5 percent of deaths, but account for 1 percent of vaccinations.
The orders now are just for Iowans to stay vigilant and for “vulnerable Iowans” to stay inside — an edict completely divorced from reality — as if our illness were a matter of personal choice. The orders make just as much sense as firefighters refusing to save people trapped inside a burning building and shouting at them to just stay away from the flames. The text of the proclamation does repeat, over and over, like a talisman, that business owners, employers and event organizers should continue to take “reasonable measures” — as if we were ever in agreement on what “reasonable” means. It’s the Pontius Pilate school of governance: Leave the decision of death up to the masses, then wash your hands of it all.
Iowa’s state motto is “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.” But our liberties are resulting in the deaths of our neighbors. And, in the absence of clear guidance, or even some shared understanding of the danger, people are turning on one another: In late December, a fistfight in a Coralville store erupted over masks. On Tuesday, my children’s school decided to end mandatory mask-wearing, though teachers have yet to be vaccinated; a few weeks earlier, Reynolds signed a bill forcing schools to offer a 100 percent in-person option for instruction. Over the weekend, free of limits on gatherings, my daughter’s friend invited her to a sleepover with 10 other girls. When I said no, the mother hosting the party called me “brainwashed.”
In Iowa, 2020 was a year of cruelty, and we are not getting nicer. At the beginning of the 2021 legislative session, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to bring back capital punishment. They also refused to enforce a mask mandate inside their chambers; several lawmakers have already tested positive for the coronavirus. News investigations continue to reveal how the state misspent vital aid on computer systems and how the governor gave special concessions to pork producers, who were and still are sacrificing their workers in the name of profits.
“Iowa nice” is a comforting myth Iowans tell ourselves about ourselves. That myth gets amplified every four years, when national reporters come through and tell happy little stories of fields, casseroles, politicians kissing babies and strangers happily offering directions. But the reality is that “Iowa nice” has become nothing more than Iowa do-nothingness: a passive acceptance of the carnage.
This story has been updated.