Monday's prime-time address from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds wasn't a terribly long message to Iowans, but I imagine the goal was to have the state's full attention rather than lose it during a lengthy speech. She told us that, where once it took our state about five months to generate 52,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, we're now racking up that many in just two weeks. She told us our daily hospitalization rates are double what they were late last month and we won't have the room to treat non-COVID emergencies if the trend continues. But most importantly, she ended her address by saying, "Now is the time to come together for the greater good — to look out for each other not because you're told to, but because it's the right thing to do."
I'll agree on her larger point, but I thought we were supposed to be looking out for each other all the time.
Yes, now is the time. I can't deny it, but last week was also the time. Last month and the month before that were also the time. Mid-March — when the pandemic reached Iowa — was also the time. It's never stopped being the time to look out for each other, because Iowans should always look out for each other — pandemic or not.
I'm irked that after months and months of people in our community, our state and even our country calling for us to take this pandemic seriously and keep us all from reaching this point, we've pushed right ahead and reached this point nonetheless. Like an exhausted parent, our governor had to lay out exactly what we should be doing — we need to wear masks (shocker), we need to limit gatherings (this tune sounds familiar), we need to follow guidance from health professionals (how novel) and if we don't do what we're asked, I'm sure more restrictions will come our way just like they did Monday night. But here's the truly ludicrous part, my fellow Iowans:
Those are the same gosh-darn things we've been told to do for the last eight months — that's two-thirds of a calendar year, and we still couldn't get it right.
I myself was still pretty optimistic even into May. I wrote a column that month telling people to "Do as the Okobojians do," because at that point we had sunk back to zero — let me say it again, zero — active cases after all six of our total cases recovered. That case count seems like a grain of sand compared to the 1,119 cases the state says we've now seen in Iowa's smallest county. We've had 11 people from our community die — some of you knew them and are still mourning their loss. But as the months waxed on, we heard our governor use a particular phrase on the regular.
"I trust Iowans to do the right thing," she told us.
I, like many of us, believed her. And I can't even truly blame her, because the Iowa she was talking about was the Iowa I was born and raised in. We do the right thing — we look out for each other — I've seen it. When our neighbors can't afford to fix their leaky roof, we bring them food and we climb up on the roof with everybody else to put on a new one. When a farmer can't finish his harvest because he started chemotherapy, a small fleet of tractors descends on his crops to finish the field work for him. But when the governor trusted us to keep this pandemic from getting out of hand — to listen to our local doctors and keep from overwhelming the hospitals and clinics we all rely on — we weren't up for the task.
By early July, the governor's words rang hollow for me.
"Now, I'm just disappointed," I wrote that month. "The governor has said time and again she trusts Iowans to do the right thing. I don't anymore."
And it seems pretty evident now that we didn't deserve that trust.
Just a couple months after the virus arrived in Dickinson County, the local Memorial Day programs and the Avenue of Flags had to be cancelled. People were understandably upset, but evidently not upset enough to change their behavior so the same thing wouldn't happen to our Veterans Day programs this last week. We were upset about how students had their school year cut short, and many of us wanted schools to do everything they could to make sure students were back at their desks this fall. Yet, outside of the schools, we continued to let our numbers rise, despite the fact that we knew it could potentially prompt schools to return to online learning — and I know we knew because I wrote about it in August.
Our positive test rate was at a little more than 6 percent that month. We cleared 10 percent within two months, and as of Friday we are sitting at more than 20 percent — just imagine what this week's data will show.
You see, despite it having always — always — been the time to look out for each other, we chose not to. Go ahead and assign it any reason you like but, at the end of the day — well, let's be honest, it's now at the end of about 250 days — we chose not to look out for our communities. We chose not to when we refused to wear masks, we chose not to when we ignored the recommendations on group sizes and we chose not to when we didn't listen to our local physicians and health professionals.
Now, with Monday's proclamation extending through Dec. 10, our collective social apathy toward "looking out for each other" has cost our community a good chunk of its annual Milford Holiday Fantasy events. The yearly festivities of course are aimed at raising funds for the Milford Commercial Club, which in turn supports dozens of local business efforts. We were afraid shutting down businesses would hurt small town economies, but somehow we're still finding ways to hurt our economy even when our local businesses are largely open.
The governor's right, we need to change what we've been doing not because we're being told to do, but because it's the right thing to do. And it always has been — it has never stopped being — the right thing to do. And it makes me shake my head to think that maybe the Iowa I grew up knowing doesn't exist anymore. Maybe we don't fix our neighbor's roof anymore. Maybe we don't help out with a harvest anymore when someone is sick. Maybe we don't care enough about our communities anymore to beat this pandemic.
I hope I'm wrong.
Please, prove me wrong.