Of Mandates and Messaging

Facing rampant viral spread, 2,000 dead Iowans with more surely on the way and hospitals packed to capacity, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued — finally — a sort of statewide mask mandate.

“If Iowans don’t buy into this,” she said, “we lose.”

Unfortunately, she’s spent the summer and fall helping Iowans buy into the importance of masks, distancing and avoiding gatherings at rallies like the one she appeared at in a Des Moines with Donald Trump.

Gov. Reynolds helping Iowans buy into the importance of masks, distancing and avoiding gatherings in Des Moines with Donald Trump.

Mandates from the state certainly matter. Prohibiting group fitness classes will lead to classes being canceled, which will mitigate spread, even if it’s not enough to save our healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Requiring masks at indoor public places will lead a segment of Iowans who weren’t to finally wear masks.

But Reynolds has taken away, or at least severely undercut, her other, best tool: messaging.

That’s critical to getting that buy in because, as she admitted in her address undercutting her message, the state doesn’t have the enforcement capabilities to police everywhere.

So, while there’s a lot of photos of her out in her Iowa flag mask (modeling good behavior!), her other actions (modeling bad behavior!) and continued, vocal resistance to issuing a mask mandate coupled with weak statements about trusting Iowans to do the right thing, sent a different message: mask wearing was a choice like a scarf in winter not a requirement like a seatbelt in a car.

Her own press releases were missed opportunities, always touting the continuation of State Public Health Emergency Declaration and never highlighting the mitigation efforts they contained. In the age of social media, the headline matters most.

Her own department of public health, responsible for her ballyhooed public awareness campaign for those segments that are still unaware we’re in the midst of a raging, deadly pandemic, fumbled with an idiotic, now-deleted post.

In Reynolds’ press conferences and other remarks, she always seemed to focus on the loopholes and exceptions to her mitigation efforts, instead of focusing on the requirements. I’ve spent the last eight months re-writing her press releases to emphasize the mitigation parts.

Even in her address, she made a point of acknowledging there wasn’t a real way to enforce any of the mandates or measures.

And so, while Iowans brace (or don’t) for a rapidly worsening state of the pandemic, instead of clear messages, we’re left to wonder: do we have a mask mandate?

Some scorecards say yes. Ultimately I’m not sure how much it matters either way.

If Reynolds hadn’t spent her time, effort and political attention undermining mitigation efforts by muddying her message and doing another, Iowans would be much more likely to “buy into this.”

A version of this post was republished by The Gazette on Sunday, Nov. 22.