Robert Gehrke: Utah County’s unreal face mask protest? This commissioner deserves the blame.

You’ve got to hand it to Utah County. They know how to make an impression on a national audience.

This time it was a group of about 100 anti-maskers who made the county a national laughingstock by jamming the commission meeting to rail against the evils of wearing masks to protect their neighbors.

I’m sure you saw it. They ripped down the tape intended to enforce social distancing and plopped down in the seats — “cheek to jowl,” as Gov. Gary Herbert put it last week in a display the governor, who hails from Utah County, described as “foolish.”

Almost none of the attendees had masks and the few those who did mostly had them tugged down around their chin, clenched in their hand or dangling from their ear.

Robert Gehrke

They wanted the county to demand the governor exempt them from the requirement that students wear masks in school and more generally to rail against masks as a sham, despite pleas from doctors, government officials, businesses, even their church leaders to wear them because they work.

But why listen to them when you can listen to internet conspiracies and Tucker Carlson’s avalanche of B.S. on Fox News?

“We are perpetuating a lie,” said Denna Robertson, 65, of Provo, who has five grandchildren. “COVID is a hoax. It’s a lie. It’s a political stunt.”

The ringmaster for the circus was Commissioner Bill Lee. He helped orchestrate the spectacle from the start — and we know this because his followers were promoting the commission hearing and arranging the rally days before Lee asked to put the item on the agenda.

He worked hand in glove with them, cheered them on at a rally before the meeting and then tried to wash his hands of it (we should all be washing our hands, by the way) with his staff saying he was helping Utah County school districts, most of which had asked for the exemption.

They have done no such thing.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Commissioner Bill Lee speaks during a rally protesting against face masks being required in schools, before the Utah County Commission meeting in Provo, Utah, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

All of this ignores a fundamental concept: Masks appear to be working.

Fine, ignore the preponderance of scientific studies on the matter, if you want. But look at what has happened in Salt Lake County since it imposed a mask mandate at the end of June. On July 3, the county was averaging 281 new cases a day, about even with the rest of the state (287).

Two weeks later, Salt Lake County is averaging 264 new cases per day, a decrease of about 6%, while the rest of the state is going the opposite direction, averaging 371 new cases a day — a 31% increase — and setting a new record with 479 cases on Friday.

Utah County, by the way, set its own record on Saturday with 198 new cases.

We can’t attribute that solely to masks — correlation is not causation — but the data clearly shows something is working in Salt Lake County that isn’t working elsewhere.

Why would that matter to Lee and his anti-maskers? After all, the virus is a scamdemic, right?

Why else would the county be going ahead with plans for the Fiesta Days Rodeo, where an estimated 6,000 people are expected to pack the rodeo grounds in Spanish Fork every night this week for some bronco busting, family fun and their chance to contract a life-threatening virus.


If Lee truly opposed mandates, he could use his position to encourage people to wear masks. Instead he rallies the fringe and undermines the entire recovery effort. He showed an abject failure to lead. But it’s not out of the ordinary for the commissioner.

Back in 2018, a task force was created to study changes to the county’s form of government. These leaders met over many months and ultimately recommended replacing the current three-member, full-time commission with a seven-member, part-time council with a full-time mayor.

There is, by the way, no rational reason that a place as populous as Utah County should have a three-member commission, each one trying to represent nearly 220,000 people. A good rule of thumb is that the more representatives there are, the more representative they will be.

But here’s the rub: If the vote ended up on the ballot in 2019, a new council would be elected in 2020, and that means Lee’s term would get cut short. He would lose his full-time job and have to run for a part-time council seat.

So, an hour before the commission was scheduled to vote on putting the measure on the 2019 ballot, Lee and his band of misfits filed a petition, saying they would gather signatures for a new process to create a five-member commission. That blocked the vote and meant the measure couldn’t go on the ballot until this November and the new commission wouldn’t be elected until 2022, so Lee could serve out his term without heartburn.

In the most recent budget discussion, Lee vowed to not raise taxes by one blue cent (that’s the color of cents in Cougar Country), but proposed several new spending items for the government already running a deficit. His idea for making ends meet was to sell a public park for $10 million which, even if it was worth that much (it’s not) is a temporary fix to a long-term problem.

“I think Commissioner Lee unfortunately has a pattern — whether it’s with the form of government issue or our county budget or now with this issue with the masks of being disingenuous,” said Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge. “There’s a disconnect between his rhetoric, what he puts on the agenda and the policies he puts into effect.”

But it’s likely, perhaps even very likely, that after this election, Lee will be the new chairman of the commission.

That’s because challenger Tom Sakievich beat Commissioner Nathan Ivie in the GOP primary last month. Sakievich was with Lee on the government petition change, backed him on his budget views and was with the anti-mask cheerleaders last week.

So if Sakievich beats his Democratic opponent, he hands Lee the chairmanship … unless …

A group of prominent Utah County Republicans are discussing ways to keep that from happening. It would likely mean recruiting someone with a high enough profile to run a strong enough write in campaign to beat Sakievich.

That may seem like a long-shot, but if it keeps Lee from embarrassing the county and preserves some responsible leadership, it’s worth a try.