Blanding • Seven months ago, Yaks Cafe in Blanding advertised itself as a source of hamburgers and Bears Ears souvenirs. Now it has become a purveyor of anti-mask merchandise.

“It’s a Yaks Cafe thing,” reads the front of one T-shirt that was offered in a limited sale through the restaurant’s Facebook page last week. Printed on the back of the tee: “No mask.”

Since at least May, the owners of the cafe, a small breakfast and lunch joint in southeastern Utah, have pushed back on public health experts' recommendations that people wear masks in public to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, the owners have argued, when customers come inside a restaurant wearing masks and then take them off to eat, they risk leaving more pathogens on the table surface than if they’d entered the restaurant unmasked.

“Just a reminder Yaks Cafe takes pride in keeping a clean and sanitary environment for all of our employees and customers,” reads one July Facebook post from the restaurant. “[I]n efforts to do this we do not allow any outside food, masks and gloves to be worn or brought inside our cafe.”

Customers who aren’t comfortable with the restaurant’s policy, the post continues, should utilize the outdoor to-go window and not enter the restaurant.

As new COVID-19 cases continue to shatter records in Utah and the Utah Hospital Association warns intensive care units may reach capacity and have to begin rationing care in a week or two, Yaks hasn’t backed down. The storefront is plastered with signs broadcasting its ban on the indoor use of masks and gloves.

“No masks! No! No gloves! No! No masks! No! Are allowed in the cafe!” reads one sign.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign outside Yaks Cafe in Blanding announces a no-mask policy for restaurant customers on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020.

San Juan County, where Yaks is located, has had more per capita COVID-19 cases than anywhere else in Utah since the pandemic began in March, and it remains a “high area of transmission,” according to state health guidance levels, which means masks are required for both employees and patrons entering all indoor public settings. Restaurant tables must be spaced at least 6 feet apart, according to the current guidelines.

“We find it really saddening,” San Juan Public Health Department Executive Director Kirk Benge said of the cafe’s policy. “But we’re still in discussions with the county attorney about what we feel would be the best course of action.”

Under state guidelines, health departments cannot enforce coronavirus-prevention mandates. If business owners have been found to violate state rules, they could be charged by a district or county attorney with a class B misdemeanor on the first offense, which could include a fine of up to $1,850 and a maximum of six months in jail.

Benge said that San Juan County is currently experiencing a third wave of COVID-19 after spikes in May and late July that were linked to the majority of the county’s 30 coronavirus-related deaths.

According to data released by the health department on Saturday, Blanding had 27 active coronavirus cases, and Monticello, the county’s current hot spot, had 47. On Oct. 9, the towns had a combined total of seven cases.

“Now we’re trending up again,” Benge said, “not as dramatically or as quickly as we did in those first two spikes in May and July, but we’re certainly trending upward.”

“We would hope," he added, “every business in the county would take things seriously right now.”

Mask mandates have been the source of political controversy throughout the course of the pandemic in San Juan County. Bluff, the county’s smallest municipality, was one of the first towns in the state to impose a mask mandate in August. A state lawmaker from Blanding, on the other hand, has compared government-imposed mask mandates to laws in Nazi-era Germany.

Elsewhere in Utah, parents have resisted mask mandates in schools, flooding school board meetings with public comments. And, on Saturday, a vendor at a farmers market in Lehi was thrown out after asking customers to wear a mask.

One Yaks customer left a handwritten note that was shared to the cafe’s Facebook page thanking the owners for their anti-mask policy.

“[Thanks] for standing by your values,” the note reads, “and making people feel like there are still places in America where the constitution is still believed and small town USA is still alive!”

Yaks could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

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.