A handful of Utah businesses are already bridling against Gov. Gary Herbert’s mandate that employees wear masks in the workplace — and regulators say they’ve received dozens of complaints that companies are flouting the rules.
Some of these business owners compare Herbert’s requirement on face coverings to an edict by a tyrannical king and contend that customers and staff should be free to choose what they wear. But as pressure builds inside Utah’s already-strained hospitals and COVID-19 infections continue to tear through the state, health experts and officials are pleading with residents not to respond to mask-wearing orders with defiance.
“In such a compassionate, family-centered state, it’s unfortunate that people really don’t seem to care that what they do is negatively impacting their neighbors,” Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, said. “It feels contrary to Utah values.”
For the many Utah businesses that have been requiring masks for months, Herbert’s new order simply reinforces what they’ve already been doing and is no cause for alarm. However, others reject the government mandate on principle, with one Salt Lake City motorcycle repair shop mockingly warning customers to wear masks at the behest of “his majesty King Herbert" and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the governor-elect.
“All who wish to enter must bear tribute in his name by donning yon royal face diaper,” the sign posted at Adrenaline Service & Dyno Tune reads. “Dissenters may be ridiculed or flogged at the whims of the prince of the realm, his royal lordship Cox.”
Jared Scoggan, the repair shop’s operations manager, said he found the poster on Facebook and printed it out “as a coping method for the new mandates.”
Almost every customer who has come in for service this year has requested the shop’s policy on masks or asked to remove his or her face covering, Scoggan wrote in an email Friday.
“While Adrenaline Service & Dyno does respect the efficacy of masks, it is not our job to force people into putting stuff on their face,” Scoggan wrote. “To be clear, we also don’t demand they wear a certain style of shirt, pants, shorts, or shoes as these things are the choice of the wearer.”
Rep. Phil Lyman, who lives in San Juan County, where mask-wearing has been controversial, said he also views Herbert’s mask order as “tyrannical.”
“He needs to understand that there are certain things he doesn’t control,” Lyman, R-Blanding, said. “Such as our hospitals and our Thanksgiving dinners and what we do in our homes.”
Lyman said he’s taking precautions at the accounting firm he owns: Most of his employees have been working from home, and he’s making sure his office is sterilized regularly. But when he meets with clients in person, he does not wear a mask, he said.
“I might consider wearing a mask, but I’m not going to do blind obedience to a mandate like that,” he said. “A person like me says, ‘Over my dead body.’”
Herbert’s spokeswoman, Anna Lehnardt, said wearing a mask is the easiest way for Utahns to prevent transmitting or contracting COVID-19.
“We are hopeful that as Utahns set aside their personal dislike of wearing protective face coverings, we will finally start to see outbreaks slow and hospitalizations decrease,” Lehnardt said in a prepared statement. “With our hospitals stretched to a breaking point, this is critical.”
Herbert for months has resisted imposing a statewide mask mandate and only did so Monday on the heels of Utah’s most devastating pandemic week to date. The emergency order also limited social gatherings to people in the same household, halted school-sanctioned extracurricular activities and required bars to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.
The state is also coordinating a massive testing campaign for Utah’s public and private colleges, which have been hotspots for coronavirus infections this fall. Ultimately, all students who live on campus or attend in-person classes will have to get tested weekly for COVID-19.
Businesses are supposed to post signage with public health information and make sure patrons are masked, according to officials. But the Utah Labor Commission, the state agency responsible for enforcing the new industry requirements, will only be citing companies if their employees aren’t wearing face coverings.
Eric Olsen, a commission spokesman, said inspectors with the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division will be responding to complaints that businesses aren’t following the governor’s directive and will check employee mask-wearing in the course of any workplace safety investigation. Unless there’s a complaint, the division’s roughly 20 inspectors won’t be visiting businesses specifically to do spot-checks for mask compliance, he said.
The agency this week has received more than 100 complaints from people claiming that a business is violating the governor’s new COVID-19 orders. The occupational safety and health division is still investigating the reports and haven’t yet cited any companies or imposed any fines, which can reach $10,000, according to the governor’s office.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said his group has always been supportive of masks, and member companies have long required employees to wear face coverings and have done their best to encourage customers to follow suit. And they’re not worried about the potential fines that violators could now face, he said.
“I don’t think anyone is out there playing gotcha," he said. “I think that if you’re demonstrating as a retailer or any other business that you’re making a good-faith effort to comply, I don’t think anyone is going to be issuing citations or levying large fines.”
Local independent restaurateurs are also behind the governor’s new emergency order, according to Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. She said she hasn’t heard any complaints about the mask mandate for employees, although she is concerned that the governor’s new state of emergency will scare people away from restaurants entirely.
“Nobody is going out,” she said. “So I’ve gotten calls from a number of different restaurants, where they’re talking about just shutting down completely because they can’t afford to stay open, because they either have no people coming in or two to-go orders a day and they just can’t survive.”
While her organization doesn’t normally ask for bailouts, Corigliano said, the restaurants in and around Salt Lake City are struggling and badly need government aid in order to pull through the pandemic.
Martindale argues that Herbert’s business requirements don’t go far enough — and that shops and restaurants should be responsible for making sure customers, as well as staff, are wearing masks.
Until Utahns treat COVID-19 with the seriousness it deserves, the state’s case counts will continue to climb and the burden on medical professionals will only grow heavier, according to Martindale, who said a nurse she knows died of the disease a couple of days ago.
“This is tragic,” she said.
Davis argued against holding businesses accountable for the actions of their patrons. In fact, he said, it’s “physically impossible” for grocery store or supermarket managers to monitor what all of their customers are doing inside these large buildings.
But retailers are generally doing their best to put up signs instructing people to wear masks, and many post employees at the entrances to remind customers to cover their faces, he said.
Scoggan explained that his motorcycle repair business doesn’t have the capacity to force customers to don masks and questions the very legality of Utah’s recent public health mandates. Shop employees stay home from work if they’re feeling sick, and they ask customers also not to visit the business if they’re unwell, he wrote.
“If the government is sick,” he added, “we shall continue to vote and post signs that reflect our feelings.”