Iron County sheriff says he won’t enforce statewide COVID-19 mandates

(Connor Sanders | Tribune file photo) This file photo shows concertgoers gathered near Cedar City in June to await a concert by country singer Collin Raye, organized in protest of COVID-19 restrictions. Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter said he won't enforce mask wearing and social distancing mandated statewide by Gov. Gary Herbert at such gatherings.

Gov. Gary Herbert has called on everyone in Utah to wear masks, socially distance in public and limit casual gatherings to the people they live with, otherwise they could face penalties. But at least one county won’t be helping the governor enforce his emergency order.

“We don’t really believe that this is entirely the right solution,” said Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter. “If our store owners and citizens wish to follow those mandates, that’s their choice. But health care is a personal decision and shouldn’t be a government mandate.”

Carpenter added that pandemic restrictions were causing other adverse effects on county residents' well-being. People are afraid to go to the hospital to treat non-COVID-19 conditions, he said, and social distancing was taking an emotional toll.

“The purpose of social distancing,” the sheriff said, “was to flatten the curve so hospitals aren’t overrun. And the fact of the matter is, our hospital in Iron County isn’t overrun.”

The sheriff said the coronavirus will only be conquered once the state achieves herd immunity.

“If we look at coronavirus and who is really at risk here — the elderly, people with suppressed immune systems, things of that nature — [those] people need to make sure they’re taking precautions to protect their own health,” Carpenter said. “But the other 99% of us need to go on with life.”

Iron County, which includes Cedar City, Brian Head ski area and Southern Utah University, has had 1,082 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, including 207 cases that are still active. There have been four deaths from the virus.

The county hosted a Collin Raye country music concert in June after two other venues canceled due to pandemic concerns.

“We hosted an outdoor concert, a rodeo, the Iron County Fair,” Carpenter said. “Our numbers have remained pretty much consistent throughout this entire virus. So me, personally, I don’t believe the mandates are right for the entire state. I think we need to look at each community separately.”

Neighboring Washington County, which includes St. George, has 1,797 active COVID-19 infections and 50 deaths from the virus to date.

Statewide, Utah saw more than 18,000 infections and a record-breaking 53 deaths in the last week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects another 256 deaths in the next four weeks. The governor’s statewide executive order, which went into effect Monday afternoon, is an effort to curb the surge.

Businesses that fail to follow the mandates — by hosting large gatherings without requiring masks, for example — face possible fines of up to $10,000. But most of the teeth for the mandate’s implementation fall on local law enforcement and health districts.

“Enforcement is up to local entities,” confirmed Anna Lehnardt, communications director for the governor.

The state Labor Commission can also fine businesses that don’t require their employees to wear masks or don’t post signs encouraging masks, Lehnardt added. She declined to comment on what the governor’s office would do if a local agency flat-out refused to enforce the emergency order.

David Heaton, a spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, called enforcement “a difficult issue.”

“Our department continues to encourage our residents and businesses to follow the Governor’s guidelines,” Heaton wrote in a text message.

Alma Adams, an Iron County commissioner, said he didn’t think the governor’s order was enforceable in the first place.

“I don’t think you’re going to find law enforcement arresting people or giving out citations,” he said.

Still, Adams said he supported the governor’s intention behind the emergency order.

“It’s hard to accept mandates," Adams said, "but I think everybody, when they’re close to someone else, they go in a store, or any public place, they should wear their mask and distance.”

Commissioner Mike Bleak said that while enforcement is a challenge, the county is still taking the executive order seriously.

“We’re certainly not ignoring any of it,” he said.

Bleak noted that the local chamber of commerce and Southern Utah University were planning to cancel events. He added that he was personally working to coordinate the governor’s requirement that university students get tested weekly for the coronavirus. Residents of the county, too, are listening to direction from the state, he said.

“In Iron County, especially since the governor’s mandate, I’ve seen very few people not wearing a mask," Bleak said. "We’ve got to put a lot of trust in our citizens.”