Utah leaders want people to wear face masks. We tracked 1,500 people at stores. Here’s what we saw.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shoppers at four Salt Lake City grocery stores on Friday, April 24, 2020. Those wearing masks appear in color and those without in black and white.

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Utah officials have time and again stressed the need for residents to wear face coverings in public. Gov. Gary Herbert has said masks should be considered part of everyone’s “fashion statement.” Health and economic officials call for face coverings in every stage of their most recent reopening plans until the state is back to “normal” life.

But are people taking the advice to heart?

In tracking more than 1,500 customers last week at 11 grocery stores around the Salt Lake Valley, The Salt Lake Tribune found only 42% were wearing masks or other face coverings as they exited.

Barely half of women used them — 51% — and just 34% of men did.

Mask usage varied between the stores sampled, and did not appear to align closely with the wealth of the surrounding neighborhood, according to the website Justice Map, which displays income data by census tract.

For example, 62% of customers were seen wearing masks as they left the Harmons store in Salt Lake City’s Brickyard — the highest rate of any of the 11 stores. Meanwhile, at a Smith’s in a West Jordan neighborhood with a median income more than double that around Brickyard, only 29% of customers wore masks — the second lowest of any store.

Customers' use of face coverings differed between stores even within the same area. For example, at a Fresh Market near 1700 South and 900 East in Salt Lake City, nearly half of customers wore masks; at a Smith's less than a mile to the south, only a third of customers had their faces covered.

But there was one noticeable trend: At every store tallied, most men were not wearing masks. In the West Jordan store, for instance, uncovered men outnumbered masked men 44 to 9.

"This isn't terribly surprising, as men are generally less likely to do other things like wear seat belts, helmets on motorcycles, etc.," said Tom Hudachko, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health.

But unlike seat belts and helmets, which protect the wearer, masks protect others, Hudachko said.

Most workaday face coverings — scarves, bandanas, and homemade cloth masks — are unlikely to prevent a person from contracting the virus; that's a job for medical-grade masks that suppliers and health officials have tried to reserve for health care workers.

But the face coverings recommended for the general public are effective at preventing an infected person from expelling droplets from their mouths and nose while simply talking and breathing, studies show.

( Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune ) A sign at a Harmons grocery store in Taylorsville encourages customers to wear masks while shopping.

That’s important because there’s growing evidence that infected people can transmit the coronavirus without or before symptoms, when they don’t know they are sick — a development that prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month to reverse its earlier recommendation and advise the general public to wear face coverings.

Before that, the CDC and state health officials had said masks were recommended only for health care workers, and even then only medical-grade, N95 masks were effective; they said at that point that the general public would not benefit from wearing simple cloth getups.

But it’s not clear whether the new advice to use masks has broken through.

As Romina Marsenaro and David Montgomery departed from a Rancho Market on North Temple last week, faces uncovered, both of them gave reasons that appear to align with the earlier guidance that only medical-grade protective equipment was useful.

“There’s no point,” Montgomery said. “It’s on surfaces, so if I come in contact something that has it, and then I touch someone else —” he nudged Marsenaro, who playfully yelped " — now you’ve got coronavirus!"

Marsenaro, on the other hand, said she’d happily wear a mask in public. “I just don’t have one that will work,” she said. “But I’m for it, really.”

Next week, health officials expect to release details on a "significant effort to get masks into people's hands at no cost to them," Hudachko said.

"Mask wearing will be a significant element as we move to the stabilization phase," Hudachko said, referring to the state's planning document for eventually relaxing social distancing orders. "Everyone wearing masks will be an important part of reopening."

Although some Utahns may view mask-wearing as something to start as the state reopens, state guidelines already recommend face-coverings in all “public spaces” — not just grocery stores, but other shops and workplaces.

Some don’t need convincing. Samantha Robinsen and her husband, Codie Jarvis, adjusted their masks as they loaded groceries into their car at a Harmons store in Taylorsville, where 59% of customers had their faces covered.

Robinsen said her mother convinced her it was a good idea. “I hate it,” she said, peeling the mask off her face.

But Jarvis added, “We should all do it, though.”

Tribune data on customers observed wearing masks at Salt Lake County grocery stores, April 20-22, 2020