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Gov. Gary Herbert has no plans to throttle down Utah’s economy, despite an alarming surge in coronavirus cases, and is bucking the state’s two most prominent mayors by refusing to require that masks be worn in public.
Herbert’s office issued a statement Tuesday saying he and his pandemic response team were considering appropriate responses to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases.
“But the governor has made it clear that a so-called ‘shutdown’ is not under consideration at this time,” the statement said. “Even under Utah’s ‘Stay Safe, Stay Home’ directive, most of the economy was allowed to move forward with precaution.”
A later statement said Herbert “strongly supports mask wearing in public when social distancing is not possible because it is a sign of respect for the health and well-being of others.”
But the governor is “concerned that requiring masks could create divisive enforcement issues at a time when we need to come together of our own accord around a shared concern for one another’s health.”
“That said,” the statement added, “local health departments should bring their data and analysis to the Utah Department of Health if they believe there is a need to vary from the current guidelines.”
The state health department recommends face coverings be worn in public, but there is no legal requirement anyone do so.
The governor was lobbied via Twitter earlier Tuesday by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. They sent tweets supporting mask requirements in the state.
“Masks are estimated to be 75% to 82% effective at preventing the spread of COVID,” Mendenhall tweeted. “Requiring they be worn in public statewide could help us turn the tide and save lives.”
For her part, Wilson announced at a council meeting Tuesday afternoon that she had sent a letter to Herbert formally requesting he allow the county to require face masks in retail and commercial establishments.
“This is not an easy decision,” Wilson said, “but I fear if we don’t act now, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
Letting residents and visitors to the county make the choice for themselves was not working, Wilson said. “I’m one who believes in our public’s best intentions, but there’s a reason we have seat belt laws — it saves lives. There is a reason we have regulations. [This] is a temporary one, but it’s one that will move the needle.”
County Council members expressed support for the mandate and signaled they intended to send a letter to the governor as well.
Council member Steve DeBry expressed alarm over the amount of people he sees who are not wearing face masks or practicing social distancing.
“To me, it’s akin to smoking laws,” DeBry said. “Someone has a right to smoke a cigarette, fine, but I have a right to not inhale it.”
During the past week, the state has averaged about 470 new COVID-19 cases a day. Tuesday saw 394 new cases and five additional deaths, boosting Utah’s coronavirus fatality toll to 163.
Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, in a memo dated Friday urged Herbert to consider reimplementing restrictions on businesses and movement if that number doesn’t drop to 200 a day by July 1.
On Monday evening, Herbert tweeted that he appreciated the memo and vowed to work to slow the COVID-19 surge but said he has “no plans to shut down Utah’s economy” — a stance he reaffirmed Tuesday.
Health experts have encouraged face coverings as a way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, especially to protect vulnerable populations. The coverings hinder droplets from a mouth or nose from traveling beyond the infected person spewing them. They primarily benefit others in proximity to an infected person.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia currently require residents to wear a mask in public, according to a CNN map.
It’s “pretty obvious,” said Dr. Gary Edwards, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, that “face coverings are not being utilized the way they could or should be.”
An order from Herbert to mandate masks in public, he said, would “put much more emphasis behind” efforts to encourage their use.”
“We would,” Edwards added, “get a certain bump [in usage] for a period of time.”
The Utah Hospital Association debuted a campaign Tuesday called #MaskUpUtah. In social media, radio and billboard ads, the English and Spanish push will encourage Utahns to wear face coverings to protect those most at risk of death or serious illness if they contract the virus.
In one display ad, a woman poses in a medical mask. The words “I do it for my” are in text beside the woman with the word “Mom” written on her mask.
“Masking is not about you,” said Dr. Michael Baumann, chief medical officer at MountainStar Healthcare. “Masking is about everybody around you.”
Baumann and other speakers at Tuesday’s virtual news conference, livestreamed online, emphasized that physical distancing and hand washing remain the best ways to prevent the spread. But, when distancing is not an option, masks will help Utah reduce the infection rate.
Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive at Intermountain Healthcare, offered support for Dunn and the rest of the Utah Department of Health. He credited them with helping to identify problem areas during the pandemic and coordinating a response.
“That thoughtful leadership and expertise and guidance that they have provided,” he said, “is really important.”
Mixed message at church
Some Utah spiritual leaders are wondering how to tread on the issue of masks, too.
At the Edgemont Ninth Ward, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation in Provo, masks will be mandatory for services held on the first and third Sundays of the month. They will be optional on the second and fourth Sundays.
Joey Franklin, the ward’s 39-year-old elders quorum president, said that since neither the church nor Utah government has mandated masks be worn in public — though both have recommended them — lay leaders in his ward were concerned they couldn’t require them.
“We didn’t want to be in a position where we had to turn someone away from the meeting,” Franklin said.
He heard from some parishioners, however, that they wouldn’t be comfortable going to services without everyone wearing a mask. So the ward leaders came up with the bifurcated solution, which also helps keep the attendees below 100. The ward’s first in-person service since the pandemic arrived in Utah will be Sunday. It’s the fourth Sunday of the month. So masks will be optional.
Franklin’s three sons, the eldest of whom is 17, won’t be there Sunday. “I don’t feel comfortable having my boys in a room full of people not wearing masks,” Franklin said.
All the services will include COVID-19 precautions, Franklin said, including leaving every other pew empty, households sitting 6 feet apart, and sacrament, or communion, trays being handled by specific individuals rather than being passed from person to person.
There will be no singing.
In some Latter-day Saint congregations, masks will be required, because top church leaders have vowed to heed all guidelines spelled out by public officials and health care authorities. In the faith’s temples, where members perform their most sacred rites and which have been slowly reopening to limited services, the church has insisted that “all government and public health directives ... be observed,” including “the use of safety equipment such as masks.”
Kirsten Rappleye, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s chief of staff, told the state’s Multicultural Commission on Tuesday that the “next phase” of the state’s public information campaign will be to ask Utahns to exercise more personal responsibility and take action to help others.
“There is a specific approach,” she said, “trying to emphasize how moving forward when we’re seeing these spikes in cases, it’s really up to you as a family member or as a community member” to help stop the spread of the virus.
That message will be relayed to the public, Rappleye noted, in both English and Spanish.
— Tribune reporters Leia Larsen, Sean P. Means and Taylor Stevens contributed to this article