Utah governor calls parents ‘irrational’ for refusing to have their kids wear masks at school

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert removes a face mask before speaking at a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 30, 2020.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that parents who don’t want to follow his mandate and send their kids to school wearing masks are “a little bit irrational” — and he questioned what other sensible safety practices they’d protest.

“I think these same people might get on an airplane and say they’re not going to fasten their seat belts,” he added. “And they may be invited to get off the plane if that’s the case.”

Likewise, Herbert said, students without face coverings should not return to the classroom and should instead do online school or homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic.

The strong response from the governor came during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah. And it follows his office’s confirmation Wednesday that K-12 students and staff who refuse to wear masks — without a legitimate medical exemption — can be charged with a misdemeanor under his mandate.

Herbert reaffirmed Thursday that it would be up to the leaders of individual schools and charters whether to enforce the mandate by seeking any potential criminal penalties for violating it. But he strongly urged families to follow his order, calling it “common sense.” He added that his grandkids would be returning to school when their districts reopen next week, and they, too, will wearing face coverings.

“We certainly can minimize the risk and mitigate the chances of you catching the virus at school, which we’re trying to do,” he said. “One of the best ways, the most effective, inexpensive ways to do that is have everybody wear a face covering.”

He specifically said the requirement is to protect teachers, who are more at risk for serious complications from the virus than their students because of their age or health conditions.

Some lawmakers and parents, though, including a large faction in southern Utah, have pushed back against the mask order, characterizing it as unconstitutional and stepping on their freedoms.

“It’s not even giving us a choice,” St. George mother Danielle Cottam told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. “I think I should have a right to choose whether or not my kids have to wear it.”

Cottam pulled her five kids out of school so they wouldn’t have to abide by the regulation. Angie Martin, who has a child attending high school in Cache County, added during a legislative meeting: “Our children should not have to suffer criminal consequences for getting an education.”

Washington County School District in the southwest corner of the state had originally opened last week allowing plastic face shields to be used in place of face masks. But after one day, Herbert revised his order to disallow that, saying those are not as effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. That has created even more resistance from those who saw shields as a compromise.

“With young children, I would think being able to see a teachers’ facial expressions during teaching would be important,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.

Experts, though, including the state’s epidemiologist, have continued to push masks as the best option until there’s a vaccine.

Herbert added Thursday: “All we’re trying to do is help create a safe environment. … Don’t do it because government is making you do it. Do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

He said it’s crucial that students return to class in person and believes masks are the way to do that. He has previously encouraged all schools to reopen, if possible.

“I think it’s really critical that our schools open up,” he noted. “Even if it doesn’t last, it’s important we start. And I certainly think it’s important that we try and see if we can, in fact, get back to normal efforts on our schooling.”