Defiant Kane commissioners declare end to Utah’s mask mandate, but state order still holds

Officials from the southern Utah county urge tourists to come and enjoy the “wide open spaces, fresh air and sunshine.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A hiker explores the Paria Toadstools in Kane County.

Kane County commissioners are defying the state mask mandate that’s set to end April 10 by declaring that “masks are not required in Kane County.”

“We’ve recognized that a statewide, one-size-fits-all approach isn’t suitable and has even been detrimental,” the commission posted Friday on Facebook, touting the county’s sparse population of “an average of less than two people per square mile.”

The state mask mandate, however, overrides any orders by county officials. And it’s not clear that many businesses in Kane County — currently considered a high transmission area — will change practices, with or without the state order.

“Until everybody’s been vaccinated, we don’t feel comfortable not having masks,” said Brenda Pine, general manager of Rocking V Cafe. Pine said an employee on Monday morning mentioned the commissioners’ statement, but she and the owner said they planned to continue requiring masks for staff and, until they are at their tables, for customers, too.

At the restaurant Sego, there was concern that customers would stop visiting if masking didn’t continue.

“We still think it’s a good thing that we’re all doing it, and that it’s important that we do it because it gives people a sense of security,” said A.J. Foster, sous chef at the Kanab restaurant, where staff undergo daily temperature checks and plan to continue wearing masks regardless of state orders.

“I know there are some businesses that don’t, and some people that don’t care — but I also know there are people who do care and won’t go to those businesses because they see those things aren’t being done,” Foster said.

In a statement, the Utah Department of Health emphasized that the state order is still in effect.

“By public health order, a statewide mask requirement remains in effect for all counties, regardless of transmission levels,” the statement said. “By this point, there should be no debating the effectiveness of masks at preventing the spread of COVID-19. We encourage Kane County residents to continue to wear masks, where appropriate, to protect themselves and other members of their community.”

The Legislature recently passed a bill setting April 10 as the end of the requirement. The measure, which has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox, would allow county and city councils to enact their own mask mandates, but those would also expire as soon as the state meets certain benchmarks for containing the virus.

A mask mandate will remain in effect for large gatherings and in public schools through the end of the school year.

Kane County commissioners posted that they “respect individual choice to wear [masks] or not. We trust the citizens and visitors of Kane County to measure risk and make decisions based on their own health and circumstances. We trust the business owners to take care of their customers with appropriate and reasonable health guidelines.”

Meanwhile, health experts say mask orders have little to do with one’s “own health and circumstances.”

Masking is effective because it helps to prevent the wearer from spreading the virus to others, who may be at far greater risk if they are infected, said David Heaton, spokesman for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which covers Kane County.

“I think most people have gotten that message — one we’ve tried to stay on the whole time: A mask is to keep others from being infected by you,” Heaton said. “Maybe that’s not understood by some people. I can’t speculate on why [Kane County] did this.”

Heaton reiterated that the health department still urges residents to follow the state’s pandemic guidelines. “Our numbers are going down overall, but it’s still being transmitted in our communities,” he said.

Pine, at the Rocking V Cafe, said she hasn’t gotten much pushback from customers.

“I did have a person come in and say three of them have vaccines and that’s why they weren’t wearing masks — but the other patrons don’t know that,” she said.

Pine noted that in Kanab, which is an hour and a half drive from St. George, lots of eligible people still haven’t been able to get their vaccines — including the owner of her restaurant.

Kane County is in far southern Utah along the state border, and at Grand Canyon expeditions, tourists aren’t affected by shifting mask orders since all the rafting company’s tours take place in Arizona. But staff in the Kanab office plan to keep wearing masks, even after the statewide order lifts on April 10, said office manager Nan McCormick.

The county has a population of about 8,000. It reported a COVID-19 outbreak in February, but officials said it was because of dozens of cases at the county jail.

“With an average of less than two people per square mile, there are ample opportunities to safely recreate and work remotely while enjoying the wide open spaces, fresh air and sunshine in rural southern Utah,” the commissioners’ post stated.

That sentiment at least appears to have more consensus than the question of mask-wearing. Lifting or keeping mask orders likely won’t make much difference to business at the Purple Sage Inn, said owner Kathy Brock. At the inn, guests mostly congregate on the outdoor patio and have been staggering their visits to the dining room, where Brock wears a mask to serve breakfast.

But with cases declining, she just hopes people start traveling again. “It’s been terrible. We were lucky to stay afloat,” she said. “But now we’re starting to get some people again.”