As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the state, the governor’s office said Thursday that it would allow Salt Lake and Summit counties to require people to wear face masks in a number of circumstances to help stem the spread of the disease.
Letting residents and visitors to the county make the choice for themselves was not working, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said earlier this week in advocating for the ability to implement the regulations.
“I’m one who believes in our public’s best intentions, but there’s a reason we have seat belt laws — it saves lives,” she said. “There is a reason we have regulations. [This] is a temporary one, but it’s one that will move the needle.”
Health experts have encouraged face coverings as a way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, especially to protect vulnerable populations. Evidence shows the coverings can hinder droplets from a mouth or nose from traveling beyond an infected person, or someone who has the virus but isn’t exhibiting symptoms. But the issue has become divisive, with some refusing to wear masks as a political statement.
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Wilson signed the new rules Friday afternoon, the same day the Summit County Council approved its order during a special meeting. The rules take effect in both counties on Saturday. Here’s a rundown of where face coverings will be required, how the regulations will be enforced and to whom they apply:
Q: Where will the face mask requirements apply?
A: Face masks will be compulsory at all indoor and outdoor public gatherings and inside all retail stores and other businesses that are open to the public in Salt Lake County, including at bars and restaurants until diners have been seated.
“Essentially, if you are in an environment where social distancing is not easily achieved, you need to be wearing your face covering,” Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said in an interview Friday.
Private workplaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained will also need to abide by the mask-wearing rules, he said.
The requirement doesn’t apply in circumstances that are not “reasonably conducive” to wearing a face covering, Rupp noted, “such as while swimming or engaging in strenuous physical activity in a crowded gym.”
“We don’t necessarily recommend being in a crowded gym,” he added, “but they are open.”
Face coverings will also not be mandated in parks and trails where social distancing is practicable.
Summit County’s order has similar guidelines, though the council said Friday that masks would be required in fitness classes.
The order in Summit County doesn’t appear to apply the same to all private businesses, however. The order stipulates that workplace compliance is for companies that interact with any member of the public, or those that work in any space visited by the public or that prepares or packages food for sale or distribution.
Q: Does this apply to churches?
A: Yes — a decision Rupp said was made “in concert with a number of interfaith leaders.”
“All of the church leadership we spoke to from a variety of denominations was supportive of requiring face coverings when unable to social distance inside their buildings and at their services,” he said.
Leaders within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah’s predominant faith, have vowed to heed all guidelines spelled out by public officials and health care authorities.
In the faith’s temples, where members perform sacred rites and which have been slowly reopening to limited services, the church has insisted that “all government and public health directives ... be observed,” including “the use of safety equipment such as masks.”
Q: Are children required to wear masks?
A: In conjunction with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county will not require face coverings for children under age 2. Rupp said the county also understands that parents may find it difficult to require children older than that to consistently wear a face covering.
“If your 3-year-old pulls their face covering off, you’re not in trouble; that’s not how this works,” he said. “We ask that you do your best, whatever that is that day.”
The order in Summit County lists the same exceptions.
Q: Are there any other exemptions?
A: The rules do not apply to outdoors settings where social distance is easily maintained, to performers “engaged in their craft,” or to people with health conditions exacerbated by a face covering — such as asthma, COPD or other breathing-related conditions, Rupp explained.
The county is relying on people who have those afflictions to use the “honor system.”
“We do not want to suggest or ask people to visit a doctor and get a note for something like this,” he said. “We do not need to be creating a rush at our health care providers at this time. That’s not what this is about.”
Summit County’s order notes specific exceptions for people who are hearing impaired, or those who communicate with someone where the ability to see mouths is essential for communication, as well as for those who are obtaining a service involving the nose or face.
Q: How will the county enforce the new rules?
A: County officials will rely first on education before issuing citations, Rupp said, adding that he doesn’t anticipate the order will be enforced much on individuals.
“I hope that most enforcement is going to happen interpersonally, like when your grandma won’t let you visit her,” he said, or your neighbor won’t come close to you at the grocery store, “if you’re not wearing a face covering.”
Violation of a public health order can be charged as a class B misdemeanor, but Rupp said the county wants the rules to be “enforced by education, not citation or prosecution.”
Police do not generally have the ability to enforce health regulations and the county has asked them not to cite individuals who are not complying with the requirement. But the health department is requesting that first responders provide a “gentle verbal reminder” when they see people without a covering.
The health department is also asking customers who see lax enforcement of the rules at public-facing businesses to politely request that they honor the face covering requirements, Rupp said. If that’s ineffective, he said, residents are welcome to report a noncompliant business through the normal channels.
Those include an online reporting form at slco.org/health/report-a-problem as well as a public reporting line at 385-468-8888, which is staffed from Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In Summit County, the sheriff and chiefs of police have been directed to ensure compliance with and enforce the order, according to its language.
“Violations of this Order shall be punishable as an infraction,” the proposed order reads. “Notwithstanding such, the purpose of this Order is to protect individuals’ health and not to hold them criminally liable. Discretion will be used in the citing and prosecution of violations of this Order.”
Q: How long will the face mask requirements be in effect?
A: The face mask rules in Salt Lake County will take effect Saturday and will remain in place until July 3, the date on which the governor’s executive order allowing the county requirements expires. A spokesman with the governor’s office said Friday that the order would be extended to run through July 10 and the county’s would be extended concurrently.
After that point, the county could work with the state health department to request stricter guidelines if leaders there see a need to extend the requirements.
Summit County’s order takes effect Saturday and will stay in place until Sept. 1 “or until it is extended, rescinded, superseded or amended in writing.” The county will reevaluate the order in two weeks.
Q: Am I required to wear a specific type of face covering?
A: Nope. Rupp says the coverings don’t have to be professionally made or take the form of a mask to comply with the order.
“It can be a bandanna; it can be a cut-up T-shirt held up over your nose and mouth at the store if you choose not to tie it. It is about providing a barrier to the tiny respiratory droplets from your nose and mouth,” he said. “Anything that does that is going to protect those around you from your secretions and can fulfill this requirement.”
Q: Are you worried cases will spike again once the mask requirements are lifted?
A: Yes. And that’s why the county’s goal is to facilitate a broader cultural shift that will remain in effect long after the rules expire.
“We don’t want it to be a yo-yo where we see cases go up, we require something and then they trickle back down and then a couple weeks later they go back up because we got lax,” Rupp said. “That’s not efficient at all.”
Rupp said his hope is that the health order could create a “shift in cultural expectations on what’s polite in public and what’s common decency during COVID.”
“And truly it might be for a number of months until we have a vaccine or a very effective proven treatment,” he said. “We might need to be wearing face coverings pretty consistently” to effectively curb the spread of the virus.