Salt Lake County says the face mask mandate is working

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ikue Chambless is joined by her daughter Shiona, 5, as they walk their dog Kaemon at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City while wearing masks due to COVID-19 on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

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Salt Lake County leaders are crediting their face mask mandate with tamping down the coronavirus, in contrast with swelling case counts in other parts of the state.

“We know that COVID-19 is a powerful competitor, and it will be with us for some time,” Mayor Jenny Wilson told reporters Wednesday. “But we do have the power to reduce its harm in our community. We know this action works.”

Wilson issued the mask edict in late June as Utah began experiencing a wave of new coronavirus infections and the state epidemiologist warned that a complete statewide shutdown might be necessary to control the outbreak. The state’s daily new case totals have only shot up since then.

Graphs passed out during the news conference showed that Salt Lake County’s daily count of new cases has flattened or even dropped a bit, while the numbers have been climbing elsewhere in the state. The number of hospitalizations in Salt Lake County has also leveled out compared to the rest of Utah, relieving some of the pressure on the medical system, Wilson said.

Salt Lake County accounted for about half the state’s new cases in late June. Now, county leaders noted, its share has dropped to about 40%, and the county’s seven-day average of new cases has fallen from a high of 306 in mid-July to 248.

While Wilson said she’d love to see those totals plummet, keeping them under control counts as a “very big win.”

“What we were concerned about was that trajectory upward. That rate increase is what led to phone calls from the hospitals to me saying, ‘Can you do more?‘” she said. “That rate increase is what literally led us to fear what could be next in our community.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Wednesday that the mask mandate in Salt Lake County appears to have helped reduce the daily number of new cases over the past two weeks but cautioned that the decline isn’t directly attributable to mask wearing.

”There’s tons of factors that go into why cases decrease,” she said, “so to pinpoint its exact cause isn’t possible but it’s likely correlated due to the timing.”

There’s less evidence for the effectiveness of a similar mandate in Summit County, she added, which has a “really low case count, so there is volatility in their number of cases from day to day.”

The Salt Lake County mandate requires people to wear masks at indoor and outdoor public gatherings and inside all retail stores and other businesses that are open to the public, including at bars and restaurants until diners have been seated.

The mask-wearing has also applied inside private workplaces, where employees can’t maintain physical distancing.

While violating a county health order can be charged as a class B misdemeanor, officials said they wanted to enforce the rules by educating people rather than punishing them.

Most people have been wearing masks, at least according to the observations of Salt Lake County health workers. They recently visited dozens of stores in three separate counties, and their informal survey found that mask-wearing was most prevalent in Salt Lake, said Gary Edwards, who heads the county’s health department.

About 98% of the observed customers and employees at Salt Lake County stores were wearing face coverings properly, Edwards said, compared to 83% of people at Davis County businesses and 68% in Utah County.

Still, he added, the health department has received a number of complaints about violations. In those cases, the county sends out teams to educate businesses or others about the face-covering rules, he said.

“As we’ve done that, with the order, with other things, we find strong compliance,” Edwards said.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she’s heard from business owners who are grateful for the mask order.

“And we’ve heard from patrons who’ve said, ‘I only want to shop in Salt Lake City because people are wearing masks there,’” she said.

Mendenhall had joined with Wilson to urge the governor to allow a mask mandate in late June. She said the majority of people want to follow the law.

“I would wager that an even greater part of the population wants this pandemic to end for many reasons,” Mendenhall said, “and masks are the no-brainer, easiest path we can take to getting there.”

In light of the county’s data about face masks, Wilson said she would encourage Gov. Gary Herbert to enact a statewide order. Especially considering the amount of recreation and travel in Utah, she said, not having a comprehensive mandate “actually sets Salt Lake County back.”

Mendenhall agreed.

“It’s very difficult to feel like the efforts of just the middle of the state on mandating masks are going to net the benefit we need them to, when no one around us” is taking similar steps, she said.

The governor wouldn’t say Wednesday whether he’ll issue a statewide mask mandate to stem the spread of the coronavirus and indicated that he wanted to wait and see whether cases are in decline by Aug. 1.

”I would hope people would just do it, as I’ve said many times before,” he told reporters at a weekly news conference. “Just do it without having to be compelled to do it because it’s the right thing to do to protect your own health and those around you. There’s no reason not to wear a mask at appropriate times when you can’t social distance.”

Herbert has so far resisted issuing a statewide mask mandate and instead has ordered face coverings in all state-run buildings and at public K-12 schools. He has also allowed local leaders to impose their own rules for face coverings.

Summit and Grand counties have so far joined Salt Lake County in mandating the masks, along with Springdale, outside Zion National Park. And Logan Mayor Holly Daines will send a request to Herbert to allow her northern Utah city to order residents to wear face masks when indoors.

”[Whether] students are able to go back to school depends on the next month, and how things go in our community,” Daines told the Logan City Council on Tuesday night.

Daines noted that Cache County’s COVID-19 numbers are low, compared with other parts of the state, but that “my request is really about prevention,” she told The Tribune on Wednesday.

Daines noted many retail chains — including Walmart, Target and Kroger (which owns the Smith’s supermarkets in Utah) — are or will soon be requiring masks in their stores. She also cited The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is encouraging its members to wear masks in public.

”We’re seeing increased compliance with that,” Daines said, “but there still isn’t as much as there could be.”

Salt Lake County’s current mask order runs through Aug. 20, the end of the state public health decree that granted local officials the power to issue the requirements. County leaders said they hope Herbert will extend those permissions so the mandate can remain in place.

Herbert on Wednesday espoused the results of a recent Brigham Young University study that found cloth masks stop 90% or more of the droplets that carry the virus and are safe to wear, with minor side effects.

”It’s not perfect but, my golly, it’s not as unsafe as we hear from many out there,” he said, referring to detractors who say they’re unable to wear a mask because of medical conditions or difficulty breathing. “In fact, it’s virtually not a problem for any of us to wear a mask.”

— Tribune reporters Taylor Stevens, Sean P. Means and Leia Larsen contributed to this report.