SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall asks businesses to enforce masks until health officials say it’s safe to stop

Intermountain Healthcare says it will require masks after the state mandate ends on April 10.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall chats with SantoTaco owner Alfonso Brito, after a news conference encouraging people to keep wearing masks, after the state mask mandate ends, Friday, March 19, 2021.

The statewide mask mandate will end on April 10, but Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is asking local businesses to keep enforcing masks until public health officials say it is safe to go without them.

Mendenhall was joined by local business owners at a news conference about masks Friday. Standing in the mid-March sun outside of Santo Taco, Mendenhall said spring is always a hopeful time but it is especially hopeful now as the state sees the light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic. She said she is grateful to Gov. Spencer Cox for opening vaccinations up to everyone over age 16 starting March 24.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall chats with SantoTaco owner Alfonso Brito, after a news conference encouraging people to keep wearing masks, after the state mask mandate ends, Friday, March 19, 2021.

Although Utah’s COVID numbers are improving as more and more people are vaccinated, the mayor said the community needs to continue exercising caution. In addition to protecting lives, she said masks help customers feel safe patronizing Salt Lake City businesses.

“Masks have been good for business and I don’t want to see that progress destroyed before we make it all the way through,” she said.

Mendenhall said the April 10 end to the mask mandate is not a date selected with health-based reasoning. She said Salt Lake City is seeking direction for how long people should wear masks from health authorities such as state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

Mendenhall said the city’s attorneys are evaluating whether the city can legally implement its own mask mandate. The option is “on the table,” but she said the city would first look at health data before making such a decision.

Business owners at the news conference said they want mask wearing to continue as they try to get their front-line workers vaccinated.

Missy Greis, owner of Publik Coffee, said masks work. She said Publik has been fully masked and has had take-out service only. Five of 64 employees at her four establishments have had COVID, and none contracted or transmitted it at work.

“Wear your masks just a little longer, they work,” she said.

She said Cox knows this but the Utah Legislature evidently does not.

Mark Jensen of Harmons Grocery said he thinks it will take another eight weeks to vaccinate all of the stores’ associates. He said he doesn’t like masks either, but they are a small price to pay to keep people safe and businesses open.

Jensen asked that patrons heed Cox’s advice and not “be a jerk” when patronizing businesses. He asked that people remember that associates at Harmons are just doing their job and deserve to be treated with respect.

Ricky Arriola of Break Bread Barber Co. said that as a business owner, community member and father he is asking everyone to do their part by masking up until health care professionals say it is safe to do otherwise. He said clients and staff at his barber shop will remain fully masked.

All Intermountain Healthcare facilities will continue to require masks.

It required face coverings at its facilities “well before any kind of state mandate,” said Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician. “We did it because masks protect patients, they protect caregivers and they protect visitors. Just plain and simple.”

And they will continue to mandate masks “out of an abundance of caution ... because we feel that it’s our duty.”

Intermountain caregivers who work with patients or visitors will wear both procedure masks and eye protections. Employees who don’t work with patients or visitors will continue to wear cloth masks. And masks will continue to be mandated for both patients and visitors.

Intermountain will monitor conditions “and we’ll pull that back when we deem that it’s safe for all those involved,” Stenehjem said.

He also recommended that Utahns continue to wear masks even after the state mandate ends.

“I can tell you that I’m going to be wearing a mask April 11 and moving forward,” Stenehjem said. “We know that masks work. We’ve seen plenty of clinical trials. We’ve seen plenty of observational studies that show the importance of a mask in reducing transmission.”

He urged people to continue to wear masks “when you’re around people and you can’t social distance.”

“Absolutely, just put it on. It’s the one thing that doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t affect the community in terms of an economic standpoint. It allows things to remain open.”

And it’s necessary because, although the number of Utahns receiving vaccinations is rising, Stenehjem warned that “the level of virus in our community is still at a high level.”

He also recommended that children continue to wear masks when they play with other children indoors. But that will change as the weather gets warmer and kids play outside.

“I would say in the not-too-distant future, they probably can play without masks,” Stenehjem said, “because when you’re outside, intercommunity transmission is low.”

He expressed optimism that Utahns will wear masks even after the state mandate expires.

“I think masks have become kind of a social norm at this point,” Stenehjem said. “People are comfortable with it. When I leave, I grab my phone, my keys and my mask. It’s become normalized. … And so my recommendation would be to continue with a mask.”