Utah’s legislative leaders oppose a face mask requirement

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Speaker Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville, shares a laugh with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, before the State of the State address in the Utah House Chambers, at the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Utah’s top legislative leaders oppose a statewide mandate that would require residents to wear face masks, even as both the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 continue to climb in the state.

Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson announced their objection in separate statements Wednesday. Those came just hours after the state set a new daily coronavirus record and one day after the two sat down with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to talk about a possible mask edict for public spaces.

“In Utah, we prefer to encourage people to do the right thing rather than issuing mandates and demanding compliance,” said Wilson, R-Kaysville.

Adams, R-Layton, added that he’s asking residents to “help out by wearing a mask voluntarily.”

It’s unclear how or if their views will affect the governor’s actions. A spokeswoman for Herbert’s office responded, saying only that the governor is expected to announce his decision Thursday morning. Adams, though, has previously said, “We are all aligned.”

Meanwhile, the state saw 722 cases of the coronavirus reported Wednesday — a daily high — for a new total of 26,755. And that’s putting pressure on the state to react.

Last week, Herbert previously broached the topic of requiring masks in public places statewide after a continuing spike since Memorial Day. The Republican leader has mandated face coverings at all state-run buildings, including liquor stores and offices of higher education.

He has 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, the gateway to Zion National Park.

Health experts say that masks are one of the most effective ways to slow that spread. But some residents, especially in conservative Utah, see mask requirements as an infringement on their personal freedoms. And one rural commissioner has called the governor a Nazi for allowing those requirements them in some areas.

That creates somewhat of a political tightrope for the governor.

Adams acknowledged that division in his statement. He falls on the side of freedom, though. The Senate president said while he supports wearing masks to protect the vulnerable and allow the state to return to normal more quickly, it’s ultimately a balance “between policies that protect public health and citizens’ rights.” The state, he added, should first see what the response is when it asks residents to wear coverings willingly and “do what we can.”

Wilson suggested, too, that it’s “prudent to stop short” of requiring them. He pointed to rural areas that have lower infection rates and shouldn’t be caught up in a statewide rule.

“Local officials are better positioned to make data-driven decisions regarding face masks that are tailored to their communities,” the speaker said. However, the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year making it so local governments have to get permission from the governor to pass stricter mandates such as that.

There is also pressure for the governor to go the other way on the issue. Other U.S. states have been forced to roll back steps toward reopening their economies. And Herbert has promised not to do that here. Requiring masks might be a compromise.

Hospitals in the state are also pushing for masks and have started their own campaign with the #MaskUpUtah hashtag. That came two weeks ago as intensive care unit beds began filling up across Utah.

Staff at both Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah hospital system have warned that without some action, they could quickly hit capacity and be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. As of Wednesday, there were 199 individuals with the virus in the hospital. That’s more than 50% of the possible occupancy.

Local companies, as well, have been urging the governor to issue a mandate. Late last week, a group of 146 Utah businesses, arts groups and associations around the Wasatch Front released an open letter, begging the state to toughen its face mask rules.

Both Wilson and Adams said regardless of whether there’s a requirement, people should take personal responsibility. The leaders urged Utahns not to ease up on safety measures.

The pandemic, they said, is not over.