Nicholas Rupp and his husband were partway through their ramble through the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening when they realized they were passing a soiree on the lawn of the Utah governor’s mansion.
Music floated in their direction from behind the fence, and Rupp noticed a harp sitting outside the stately residence. Illuminated by overhead string lights, caterers balanced trays of food and cleared away dirty dishes.
The roughly 20 guests who were milling around the mansion lawn were dressed to the nines, he says. Only, some of them were lacking the trademark coronavirus-era accessory — a mask.
“I was surprised to see that,” Rupp, who works at the Salt Lake County Health Department, said Thursday, “because I know that the governor has been very supportive of wearing face coverings.”
Rupp estimated that only half the partygoers were wearing the masks, meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. Some people appeared to have removed their face coverings to eat, he said, but others without masks were clustered in groups and chatting.
Dismayed, Rupp’s husband snapped a cellphone photo. Later Wednesday night, Rupp tweeted it out.
“Party outside tonight at the governor’s mansion in downtown #SLC, which is still in the ‘orange’ risk level,” Rupp captioned the photo. “Probably about half the visible attendees wearing a face covering. Way to walk the walk, @GovHerbert.”
The photo he posted on Twitter was taken from a distance, and it’s difficult to tell from the picture if any of the partygoers had uncovered faces. Several people are clearly wearing masks.
Another photo shared by Rupp’s husband depicts at least one partygoer not wearing a face covering and another person whose mask was pulled down. Both appear to be standing in close proximity to other guests.
In a prepared statement, Gov. Gary Herbert’s office said masks were required at the “small, private event” that was held to honor several area artists. The gathering complied with all state and county health guidelines, according to the office.
“The guest list was small, and all in attendance maintained physical distance from one another,” the statement continued. “Gov. Herbert continues to encourage people to exercise caution when gathering in groups. When Utahns choose to gather, he recommends they do so outdoors, where they can practice physical distancing — and that all attendees carry masks that may be worn when in close proximity with others.”
While coronavirus restrictions have eased across much of the state, Salt Lake City remains in the moderate-risk or “orange” category. People in these areas are discouraged from gathering in groups of more than 20 and are advised to stay home as much as possible, wear face coverings in public settings, and stay at least 6 feet away from others.
Herbert has declined to issue a statewide mandate to wear masks in public places, although he has allowed a few jurisdictions — including Salt Lake County — to hand down their own edicts. The day of the party, Salt Lake County leaders held a news conference to share data suggesting their face-covering rules have helped curb the spread of coronavirus.
In a separate news conference Wednesday, Herbert wouldn’t say whether he intends to order masks statewide and indicated that he’d prefer people to voluntarily cover their faces in public.
“I would hope people would just do it, as I’ve said many times before,” he told reporters. “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.”
Nicholas Rupp’s husband, Michael Rupp, said the presence of unmasked partygoers on Herbert’s lawn conflicts with the governor’s public statements.
“The governor had just spoken that day about the importance of wearing masks, so it makes sense why this is something the media has picked up,” he said. “I’m certainly not pleased with that kind of behavior, that mixed message.”
Nicholas Rupp said he has not heard anything from the governor’s office since posting the photo to social media. He said he was making a point as a private citizen during his personal time and not in his capacity as spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.
His Twitter account is personal, he added, and he has locked his profile since Wednesday night.