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High-risk families were asking a Utah County official for a mask mandate. So she turned to an anti-mask Facebook group to solicit comments opposing them.

Parents advocating for masks in schools blasted the post as an inappropriate attempt to skew public comment.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Protesters listen as 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.

A Utah County commissioner turned to an anti-masking Facebook group to solicit more comments against a school mask requirement, saying pro-mandate messages to county officials were outnumbering anti-mandate messages ten to one.

“County [c]ommissioners, Board of Health members, and [s]chool [b]oards are getting sent dozens of emails begging them to impose mask mandates for schools,” Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner posted on a Facebook group called Utah Mask-Free Businesses.

“Each email tells a story about a high-risk person and begs that they be protected by requiring masks for children next school year,” Powers Gardner continued. “For each 10 emails I get asking me to mandate masks I only get 1 or 2 asking me to not mandate masks.”

Her nudge to the anti-mask community worked. A little while later, she posted:

“Update for y’all: I received 40 emails today from y’all opposing mask mandates. Good job! Keep it up!”

But the outreach effort infuriated many parents who are worried about unmasked kids crowding schools this fall and see Powers Gardner’s post as an attempt to stack the decks against them.

“To say this is unethical and an abuse of power is an understatement,” Tricia Bunderson, mother of two Lehi Elementary School students, wrote in one of many social media posts criticizing Powers Gardner.

Bunderson, an emergency room nurse, said her daughter has underlying lung issues and is still too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19. She’s been reaching out to local and state leaders daily, imploring them to reinstate universal masking in schools — and she said it feels like “a slap in the face” for Powers Gardner to cheer on anti-mask efforts.

[Read more: Utah families with medical risks say they are splitting up, changing schools and risking loved ones’ lives for their kids’ education now that schools can’t require masks]

“Why even have representative government if officials refuse to listen to concerned citizens?” she wrote in a message to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Powers Gardner says she simply wanted to put anti-mask parents on notice that their local governments could be weighing the question in coming weeks.

“I know that there are thousands of parents out there that don’t want their children to be masked,” she said in an interview. “And I was trying to let them know that the other side of the argument, the other side of this perspective is actively lobbying for mask mandates.”

However, she says she’s confident a school mask mandate won’t fly in her solidly conservative county, even with the torrent of emails pressing the three-person commission to support one. Not only did Powers Gardner actively seek anti-mask comments to guide county officials, another member of the three-person county commission, Bill Lee, has participated in anti-mask protests.

Utah County Commissioners Lee and Tom Sakievich did not immediately respond to The Tribune’s messages.

Because any mask order would have to be approved by the commission, the director of the Utah County Health Department probably won’t request one, said Aislynn Tolman-Hill, spokesperson for the department.

“It’s our understanding that we would not have the support for really any type of a public health order that we might need to do, including a mask mandate,” Tolman-Hill said. “I don’t know that we would try for something if we know it’s going to immediately be vetoed or turned over.”

The health department operates under the control of the county commissioners — and the health department is unlikely to seek further measures to contain the virus because “we definitely want to maintain those relationships,” Tolman-Hill said.

This week, the Utah Department of Health advised parents to send their kids back to school in a mask and get them vaccinated against COVID-19, if they’re old enough. Children under the age of 12 don’t yet have access to the vaccines.

With Utah leaders vowing that statewide school mask mandates are gone, some parents might not realize face covering requirements are still a possibility for their communities and might mistakenly believe the Legislature banned them earlier this year, Powers Gardner says.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Amelia Powers Gardner sworn in as Utah County Commissioner by Josh Daniels in Provo on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Powers Gardner replaces Tanner Ainge and is the first woman ever to serve on the commission.

Utah lawmakers did prohibit school districts from imposing mask mandates, but they left the door open for local health departments to issue them. The new law then gives county councils or commissions the right to veto one of these health orders — and that’s where local officials such as Powers Gardner enter the picture.

Powers Gardner says she’s sympathetic to parents concerned about their unvaccinated children being exposed to the more contagious delta variant when classes start.

And she’s not personally opposed to voluntarily masking up, she said. Powers Gardner, who’s immunocompromised, has been using N-95 masks since 2013, and her kids have worn face coverings in school during cold and flu season for a number of years.

But health experts have said that while masks provide some protection for the wearer, they are most effective as a barrier that protects others from the wearer’s own respiratory droplets. The masks do far more to prevent the spread of the coronavirus if everybody wears them.

Powers Gardner argues that face coverings can be detrimental to kids like her daughter, who has a language disorder and has struggled to understand her masked teachers and classmates during the pandemic.

“I definitely see this from all sides and and understand why it’s so passionate,” she said. “My personal philosophy is that you need to do what’s best for you and your family and we need to learn to respect each other more.”

Powers Gardner said she’s spoken to Alpine School District officials about balancing the wishes of families in both camps — perhaps by designating some classrooms for masked kids and others for unmasked students.

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