Bluff became the latest Utah town to enact a local mask mandate on Tuesday, joining Logan and Springdale as the third Utah municipality to pass a local rule requiring face coverings in indoor public spaces.
The decision came after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert loosened restrictions on local governments last week so that they can simply notify the state of their intent to mandate masks. Cities and counties had previously been required to request permission from the Utah Department of Health and the Governor’s Office in order to impose health rules that deviated from statewide coronavirus guidelines.
Grand County, Summit County and Salt Lake County had all gone through that process along with Logan and Springdale and had been allowed to mandate mask coverings before Herbert’s rule change.
But San Juan County, where the 262-person town of Bluff is located, remains in “yellow” or low-risk guidelines, despite having the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in the state. Twenty-five San Juan County residents have died after contracting the coronavirus as of Wednesday, including at least one resident of Bluff, and the 15,500-person county accounts for over 7% of the total coronavirus deaths in Utah.
Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen and the Town Council requested permission to impose a mask mandate July 13 through the San Juan Public Health Department, as required under the old rules, but it was not forwarded to the state for approval until Aug. 7, after a follow-up letter from the town’s attorney.
At a press conference last week, Herbert said he was “a local control person,” adding that the new process would streamline local requests.
“For those who are in local government … if you want to say, ‘We want to in our city or our county to have a mandate for masks,’ all you need to do is notify us,” Herbert said on Aug. 6.
The Bluff Town Council took advantage of the rule change and unanimously passed an ordinance mandating masks Tuesday night. The ordinance has exceptions for restaurant guests seated at tables, outdoor spaces and people working in indoor commercial spaces who don’t come into contact with coworkers or the public. It allows property owners to treat people who do not comply with the rule as trespassers and allows for a $500 fine after a verbal warning.
An analysis of 130 scientific studies completed by a team at Brigham Young University last month found overwhelming consensus among researchers that masks were effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Leppanen said she was glad the ordinance was in place and said she received widespread support for it from constituents. Several business owners spoke in favor of the ordinance at a the town meeting Tuesday.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Leppanen said. “Salt Lake County implemented mandatory masks a month ago, and they’ve seen positive results in decreasing the numbers. My sense is it shouldn’t have taken this long for local governments to get permission based on local factors because one size isn’t going to fit all. It shouldn’t have taken [Bluff] almost a month to be able to do this.”
The Navajo Nation, which borders Bluff’s town limits to the south and was the epicenter of the outbreak in San Juan County in April and May, continues to enforce some of the most restrictive coronavirus rules in the state, including curfews. But since mid-July, the majority of active coronavirus cases have been in non-reservation areas of the county, with a severe outbreak occurring in the Four Corners Regional Care Center in Blanding that led to the deaths of eight residents in July.
According to photos posted to the center’s Facebook page and early comments by the care center’s spokesperson (which he later retracted), masks were not consistently worn by staff in the facility until late June. In a June tweet, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, compared statewide mask mandates to laws requiring armbands be worn by Jewish residents of Nazi Germany. A Fourth of July parade in Blanding saw minimal mask use.
As of Friday, the San Juan Public Health Department reported 77 active cases in Blanding, accounting for more than half of the 143 active cases in the county as a whole. Outbreaks had spread beyond the care center to other businesses in town, including employees at a bank and a motel.
“Public health highly recommends that businesses should not be requiring a COVID-19 test result or a doctor’s note for employees to prove they are ill, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work,” said San Juan Public Health Department director Kirk Benge.
Around 40% of the coronavirus tests administered in the last two weeks in San Juan County were Blanding residents, according to Benge, and 38% of county residents have been tested since the pandemic began.
Grand County, which borders San Juan County and is home to the tourist destinations of Moab and Arches National Park, imposed a mask mandate in late June. Southeast Utah Health Department, which oversees 40,200 residents in Grand, Carbon and Emery counties, announced its first coronavirus-related death on Monday.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.