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In our opinion: Utahns need a bit of perspective when it comes to masks

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A Walmart employee holds a bag of face masks outside of the store in Orem on Monday, July 20, 2020, the first day the retail giant required all customers to wear a face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Utahns need a bit of perspective when it comes to the debate over wearing masks to counter the novel coronavirus.

Despite rallies, protests and the rude behavior of some people toward retail employees enforcing company rules, Utahns as a whole are not so opposed to the idea.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 62% of respondents statewide support Gov. Gary Herbert’s mandate that all students, teachers, administrators and other public school employees wear one when classes resume this fall.

In addition, 43% said the governor ought to require everyone statewide to wear a mask in public. While not a majority, this was the largest segment of responses to the question, with only 18% saying local governments should make the call and 36% saying individuals should decide for themselves.

The trouble with that last segment is that some people refuse to take the need for a mask seriously.

The poll results are a refreshing reminder of the goodness of Utahns. Loud voices on both sides of the mask debate get most of the attention, but Utahns have regularly shown that they are willing to sacrifice personal preference and even their own comfort for the possibility of making a difference for the greater good.

Rude behavior, however, is inexcusable under any circumstances. When it comes to a matter as important as this, respecting others and setting aside arguments based on suspect science or based in authoritarian rule is the only way to change the conversation and behavior.

The key to analyzing and understanding scientific studies is to view them in perspective to the vast body of work on the subject.

An analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University of studies concerning the matter concluded that field observations and experiments from a preponderance of studies provide convincing evidence that masks reduce the spread of COVID-19. The wearing of masks, they said, could prevent any further shutdowns of the economy. For infected people, 90% of the droplets that leave their mouth through speech, coughing or simple breathing contain the virus. These can be held at bay by simple masks.

Recent experience has shown this to be true. Salt Lake County experienced a noticeable drop in new cases after Mayor Jenny Wilson imposed a countywide mask mandate.

So far, nearly 43,000 Utahns are confirmed to have tested positive. That’s not a made-up number. While the mortality rate here has been less than in many other states, that good fortune does not erase the suffering many have experienced, or the lingering side effects that continue to plague many. Having a conversation with someone who has had the virus, a healthcare worker who has dealt with the virus in Utah hospitals or someone who lost a loved one might be the only way to change perspective and behavior for some.

Fortunately, most Utahns take the pandemic seriously and are doing what they can to minimize risk. That attitude will be particularly important as public schools take their first uneven steps toward restarting soon. 

School officials should be vigilant and ready to pivot to new strategies in response to any new outbreak of the virus. The governor’s mask mandate, supported by nearly two-thirds of the state, ought to at least give them a fighting chance.