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With President Trump having abandoned any attempt to organize a national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the states have had to chart their own path.

A number of states have adopted an all-choices-matter approach by allowing their citizens to essentially do whatever they want. Not surprisingly, people in those states have done exactly that, resulting in rising case numbers and deaths. Watching this scenario unfold feels like reading the Choose Your Own Adventure book series in which almost every choice leads to a bad outcome. While epidemiologists offer researched-based evidence on the best path forward, state governors have instead launched a bewildering campaign to explore every bad option in their pandemic adventure playbook. This lack of coherent leadership and clear direction has proven lethal.

But one state leads the way in failed leadership: Iowa.

Iowa last gained national attention in January for the Iowa Democratic Party’s bungled caucuses. Iowa Republicans, seeking to outdo their opponents, are now reclaiming the national spotlight of shame by exceeding the Democrats’ irresponsibility and incompetency. This time, however, the stakes are much higher. The Republican-led state legislature and Republican Governor Kim Reynolds have failed to enact virtually every standard of health and safety in dealing with pandemic.

Here’s a brief summary of Iowa’s many failures.

1. Testing

Iowa ranks 29th in testing per capita. The middle of the pack doesn’t sound exceptionally bad, but testing debacles make Iowa’s story much worse. Iowa’s governor, #CovidKim Reynolds, awarded a no-bid contract to a private firm hired to handle Iowa’s COVID-19 tests, and the testing has been riddled with delays and inconsistencies. Last month in Dubuque, where case numbers were rising—at a time when accessible, prompt testing matters most—the governor limited testing to 100 tests per day, only four days per week, only offered between the hours of 6-7 A.M.

2. Group Gatherings and Social Distancing

In the spring, all states including Iowa encouraged social distancing and issued mandates limiting some businesses and some size gatherings. Iowa—with its first-in-the-nation caucuses—loves going first, and so it did with loosening restrictions. On May 1, Reynolds, citing “metrics and data” that her office refused to release, reopened businesses, churches, restaurants, and bars. She also loosened guidelines on the sizes of gatherings. She made these decisions despite case numbers holding steady or rising across the state, and despite health officials citing July 1 as the safest reopening date for Iowa. Since reopening, Iowa’s cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have all steadily increased.

3. Masks

Of the fifty states, there are only two that have no state-wide mask mandate at all: South Dakota and Iowa. When Governor Reynolds was recently presented with the science of how masks stop the spread of COVID-19, she rejected the science outright saying, “Some people will tell you just the opposite.” Admittedly she has encouraged wearing a mask in public, but she has also been photographed at large events where no one was wearing a mask. At the same time, Reynolds has warned cities and counties across that state that they have no legal right to issue local mask mandates. In desperation, several cities and counties have defied the governor, issuing their own mask mandates while acknowledging they are unenforceable.

4. School Openings

There are five states mandating that their schools reopen for in-person learning: Florida, Missouri, Texas, South Carolina, and Iowa. School openings have already been linked to new outbreaks, and several local districts across Iowa have made plans to hold classes online only. But Governor Reynolds—whose approval rating is now at 28 percent—has held three press conferences to double-down on reopening schools. The local school districts claim the law is on their side in deciding what is best for their students, teachers, and staff. Reynolds disagrees, saying in the most recent press conference, “I want to be very clear. Schools that choose not to return to school for at least 50 percent in person instruction are not defying me. They’re defying the law.”

The last two categories together—masks and school openings—that have gained more attention and widespread criticism, which may account for Reynold’s historically low approval rating. Reynolds has resisted telling Iowans what to do when it comes to masks, further complicating this public health crisis. But then she has signaled that she will use the full extent of the law to demand reopening schools, also further complicating this public health crisis.

She wants to have it both ways, and indeed she will. And both ways will lead to further infection, hospitalizations, and death.

Iowa has failed.

Rather, its leaders have failed its citizens utterly and completely. Much like Trump left the states to fend for themselves with no national strategy, Governor Reynolds has left Iowans to their own devices. Iowa Republicans’ imprudence, disregard for science, and laissez-faire approach to everything except school reopenings has proven deadly.

During fall football games at the University of Iowa, the marching band plays a traditional song called “On Iowa.” The lyrics of that song offer a promise of Iowa’s abundance:

On Iowa proudly at the fore
On Iowa on forevermore
Ev’ry loyal son will give
A rousing toast to you
Ev’ry loyal daughter loves you true
On Iowa with your wealth untold
A heritage to us you did unfold

As Iowans prepare to send their children back to schools by order of the governor, with or without masks as they choose, this victorious fight song will most definitely turn into a funeral dirge. By winter, there will be many fewer sons and daughters to toast and cheer for their beloved Iowa.

David Borger Germann

David is a pastor, magic bean buyer, and aspiring mystic. He lives in Iowa City with his wife, two soccer-playing sons, and two budgies named Lizzy & Jane.

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