Utah governor is considering a new statewide face mask rule

(Steve Griffin/ Deseret News via AP, file photo) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert during briefing on the state's efforts to fight COVID-19 Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The Republican governor is being pressured to enact a statewide requirement for face masks to help curtail the spread of COVID-19.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert could issue a new statewide edict on face coverings to fight COVID-19 as early as Wednesday after meeting on the issue with top legislative leaders.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams confirmed having a virtual meeting on face masks with Herbert and House Speaker Brad Wilson, but would only say of the Tuesday discussion that he expected the governor “will make a decision and I’m sure he will announce it shortly.”

“We are all aligned. We hear the calls very clearly,” Adams, R-Layton, said late Tuesday. “We’re trying to maintain and protect people’s health and maintain and protect the economy. We can do both and we are going to do both.”

A spokeswoman for Herbert declined late Tuesday to comment on the governor’s thinking, at least pending a crucial meeting with his Unified Command team of staff members battling the crisis.

But Herbert had broached the topic of requiring masks in public places statewide as recently as last week, amid a continuing spike in COVID-19 cases in Utah since Memorial Day.

The Republican leader, who also reportedly participated in a teleconference with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday, has required face coverings at state-run buildings, including liquor stores and offices of higher education, in a move aimed at limiting spread of the virus.

Herbert also granted permission to officials in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties to require masks, as well as to leaders in the southern Utah town of Springdale, a tourist gateway community to Zion National Park.

Utah has ardent mask opponents, some of whom view any requirement as infringing on their personal rights. But pressure on Herbert the other way is also mounting from several quarters, as other U.S. states with conservative leaders and growing COVID-19 case numbers have been forced to roll back steps toward economic reopening.

The Utah Hospital Association warned Tuesday that without a statewide mandate for face coverings where social distancing isn’t possible, the recent increase in infections that has already brought “unsustainable” impacts on hospitals and medical staff will worsen.

Although average lengths of stay by COVID-19 patients and the mortality rate from the disease “are improving,” the association said in a letter to Herbert, Wilson and Adams, “we are alarmed at the caseload we project in the coming weeks and months.”

That news comes as Utah saw its biggest increase in hospital admissions attributed to the coronavirus, with 49 new patients hospitalized since Monday. A total of 197 Utahns are now receiving care for COVID-19, the Utah Department of Health reported. Along with non-COVID-19 patients, that had pushed overall usage to more than 60% of the state’s intensive care unit beds, DOH said.

Noting that Utah’s hospitals had launched a face mask awareness campaign two weeks prior — under the hashtag #MaskUpUtah — the association’s CEO said the group had hoped that a large number of residents would don protective masks.

“Unfortunately, it is not happening quickly enough,” said the association’s letter, petitioning for a mask requirement.

Widespread use of face coverings, the association said, has proven successful in combating and containing the spread of the virus in Asian nations and elsewhere. The link between 90% of citizens wearing masks and reducing infection, it said, “is beyond question.”

Quoting from a recent economic analysis by the worldwide financial firm Goldman Sachs, the association said that a national mandate on masks could “potentially substitute for renewed lockdowns” that could otherwise slash U.S. economic productivity by nearly 5%.

That urging is being echoed by many private-sector and cultural leaders as well. Late last week, a diverse group of 146 Utah businesses, arts groups, educators, utilities, charities, professional associations and chambers of commerce on and off the Wasatch Front released an open letter, also urging the state to toughen its face mask rules.

Update requirements are needed, the groups said, to both protect public health and nurture the state’s emerging economic recovery. The Salt Lake Chamber has launched its own promotional campaign — dubbed Stay Safe to Stay Open — to encourage reopening businesses to adopt the latest public health measures, including masks for their workers.

“Public health and economic health are inseparably connected, not competing alternatives, and both are required to sustain healthy and economically viable families, businesses and communities,” said the letter, issued under the auspices of the Salt Lake Chamber.

The open letter specifically urges Utah leaders to update a series of recommendations under the state’s color-coding system for labeling levels of perceived risk for COVID-19, to require masks at the yellow, orange and red risk levels where social distancing is not possible.

The groups likened such a rule to barring smoking in public places or requiring seat belts in cars or hardhats at construction sites. “We see this every day in commerce,” they noted.

“We believe in particular circumstances that private sector efforts must be coupled with reasonable government regulation, especially for the purpose of protecting personal health and the rights of others,” the groups wrote.

“Seldom in business or in life is the most effective solution also the easiest,” the statement continued, “but in the fight against the coronavirus that is exactly what wearing a mask means for the health and well-being of lives and livelihoods.”