Utah County, long resistant to mask mandates, reacts with resignation and frustration to new requirements

Orem • Edna Clarkson, 79, is up on her popular culture and how Utah County has begun requiring people to wear masks in public.

“I am not a fan of Lady Gaga," Clarkson said, "but I think Lady Gaga said it best. It’s a sign of being kind to others.”

Not everyone is doing a happy dance about the county mask mandate that took effect Tuesday. Rachelle Pay, a 50-year-old Orem resident, called it “a bunch of crap.”

“I’m a huge conspiracy theory person,” Pay said, “and I would say this is just part of that to scare us into fear because of an election year.”

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

For months, Utah County resisted stricter coronavirus mitigation. That started to change Tuesday, when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert moved Provo and Orem to an “orange” level — a more restrictive status than the “yellow” those cities had been operating under for most of the pandemic.

Later in the day, the Utah County Health Department, with the blessing of the County Commission, mandated masks in public areas where physical distancing isn’t possible. The health department could close down businesses and other venues where people are not wearing masks, but the mandate does not include the risk of citations for individuals.

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie voted for the mandate. He said Herbert’s decision to move Provo and Orem to “orange” made obvious what would happen if there were no mask requirement in the county.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anti=-mask protesters speak do the remaining commissioners, Bill Lee and Nathan Ivie, after commissioner Tanner Ainge left the room, after the meeting was adjourned by a 2-1 vote because the room was too crowded and he felt that the crowd was breaking the health code, before the Utah County Commission meeting got started, in Provo, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Case counts would continue climbing, Ivie believed, and Herbert would make all of Utah County orange, restricting business activity there.

“So I chose the lesser of the two” options, Ivie said Wednesday.

“I’m not a fan of mandates,” Ivie said moments later. “I think people should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge, who has supported the mask mandate, said Wednesday the requirement shouldn’t be interpreted as a failure of residents to do the right thing on their own. Ainge said the mandate wasn’t necessary earlier in the pandemic when the county’s case count was on par with those elsewhere on the Wasatch Front.

The recent spike, which he attributed to the reopening of schools and the return of college students to Provo and Orem, made the mandate necessary, Ainge said.

“The majority of our county is trying to take this [pandemic] seriously,” Ainge said.

Erin Stowell, a 35-year-old mother of four who was shopping for Halloween costumes Wednesday at University Place mall, said she supports the mask mandate, though she wants some leniency. Stowell said one store made her toddler wear a mask.

“What 2-year-old is going to wear it?” Stowell asked.

She also doesn’t favor closing businesses or canceling sports and other events when customers or attendees don’t wear face coverings.

“I’ll follow the [mandate] to keep other people safe,” Stowell said, “but don’t close businesses. People have to work.”

Clarkson fears young adults who drove the recent spike won’t wear masks and that their infections will spread to people at greater risk.

“I call them the cute young things," Clarkson said of college-age people. "They feel like they are immune and don’t have to take precautions.”