Tim Glenn: LDS Church could move the needle on masks

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center is shown during the 190th Annual General Conference Saturday, April 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The twice-annual conference kicked off without anyone attending in person and top leaders sitting some 6 feet apart inside an empty room viewed via live-stream as the faith takes precautions to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. It is the first conference without a crowd since World War II, when wartime travel restrictions were in place.

With a sharp spike in new COVID-19 cases in Utah, a concerning increase in hospitalizations and a state government hesitant to make bold decisions to save the lives of Utah residents, it’s time we call on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to come out in support of mandatory masks.

I’m (mostly) kidding of course. I realize the absurdity of that statement. But we live in absurd times. In the midst of a global health crisis that will help define a generation, our leadership is worried about the politics of mandating safety for the benefit of public health. Absurd, indeed.

It’s a surprising reversal for a state that has been historically obsessed with public health. Utah enjoys the lowest legal limit for blood alcohol level in the country — the argument being for the benefits of public health. In our state, you are banned from purchasing a bottle of wine at a grocery store for the benefits of public health. In 2016, Gov. Gary Herbert took a huge political risk by signing a resolution that declared the very existence of pornography a public health hazard.

But now, with Utahns catching a deadly airborne disease in new record numbers almost daily, our state government is afraid to inconvenience a few in order to save many. It’s a moral dilemma that pits the value of human lives against the inconvenience of breathing slightly warmer air when you’re inside a Walmart.

Seems like a no-brainer. But despite recommendations from Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, Herbert said on Twitter that he has “no plans to shut down Utah’s economy.”

Studies continue to show that social distancing alone is not enough. Mandated masks are an effective measure to limit the spread of the deadly disease. Especially if we have no intention of shutting anything down. Yet the governor has been hesitant to take any significant measures in regards to mandatory masks.

Let’s not be so naive to think that there are no politics in politics. Polls have shown that one party tends to be willing to wear a mask much more than the other. In a formal letter sent to the governor on Tuesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson requested that we mandate masks in public. In comparison, state legislator and former San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman has said he’ll defy whatever the governor tells him to do.

In the ongoing saga that is COVID-19, public health in Utah has taken a back seat to politics. Last week rural counties in Utah moved to Green Health Risk Status. This, despite increasing numbers in many places that don’t even have a hospital. All because people like Lyman believe COVID-19 isn’t a real problem.

But if there is one thing I’ve learned about Utah politics, it’s that getting the church involved moves the needle. We don’t have mandatory masks, not because of science, but because of the fear of a political base. So maybe it’s time we appeal to the fear of God? It’s absurd, but at this point it might just work.

Tim Glenn is a museum professional and writer living in Salt Lake City.