Facebook Twitter

Wearing a mask is becoming a political issue — here’s why

Utah announces 152 new cases of COVID-19 as it moves into economic recovery mode; masks are recommended for everyone

SHARE Wearing a mask is becoming a political issue — here’s why
merlin_2775678.jpg

Toby Law and Mac Dungan, pictured at right, wear masks as they work at the Caffe Expresso drive-thru in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Heather Santi is in an almost impossible situation.

The owner of two restaurants — Eggs in the City in Salt Lake City and Herm’s Inn in Logan — she desperately wants to reopen both businesses. But reopening under the guidelines issued by county and state governments, as well as her desire to keep both her employees and customers as safe as possible from the coronavirus, could make her a target for protesters who are threatening to boycott businesses that require them, as they’ve come to see masks as more of a political statement than a safety measure.

“The thought of customers boycotting businesses for trying to get their doors open and keep the public safe doesn’t seem fair,” said Santi, who had to furlough most of her employees and apply for loans and grants to stay afloat for the last six weeks. “Business owners are having to deal with employee anxiety around COVID-19. ... As a business owner, I’m really torn. I want my employees to feel comfortable coming back to work.”

As the state moves into a moderate-risk category of its recovery phase, wearing a mask may become the only defense a person has in public.

And while more vulnerable populations are being asked to take extra precautions, workers and business owners need that peace of mind as they go back to work amid uncertain circumstances.

“We have to prevent infections from getting into vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. She said, however, that the state is prepared for an uptick in cases that could come along with reopening the economy.

The health department reported an increase of 152 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, with 4,495 total known cases in Utah — a 3.5% growth rate from Tuesday. More than 105,770 people in the state have been tested for COVID-19, with about 4.2% testing positive, according to Dunn.

No new deaths were reported Wednesday. A total of 45 people have died with COVID-19 in Utah thus far.

Dunn said this next step in the state’s recovery plan — slowly opening the economy — “is aggressive but not out of the ordinary.”

“We need to ensure that we maintain control of COVID-19 and still protect our economy,” she said during Wednesday’s official briefing at the state Capitol. “The tiered system is a smart way to do it.”

Starting Friday, more businesses will be open, and, according to the Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan, business owners are required to maintain proper social distancing standards, assess the temperature and/or symptoms of patrons and encourage customers to wear masks. The plan, available online at coronavirus.utah.gov, outlines modifications each type of business must make.

Dunn said that starting on Friday, people can again begin to gather in groups larger than 10, but must still maintain social distancing or wear masks while doing so.

People over age 65 or with underlying conditions, which she said includes obesity, hypertension, and lung conditions, among others, are instructed to stay home as much as possible.

Dunn said health and government officials in local jurisdictions can increase restrictions where they see fit, as “this virus is spreading differently in different places.”

After seeing the posted guidelines, Santi immediately began searching for protective face shields for cooks and kitchen workers, while trying to buy extra face masks in case customers come without one.

“Now we’re out there competing with hospitals trying to get PPE,” she said, chronicling how she reached out to “a woman who can find me pretty much anything” to try and be ready for a Friday reopening. “She got me 300 (masks), and she asked me to Venmo her, and I just thought that was sketchy. It was a very unusual form of payment.”

Her “black market” experience cost her $1,300 and now she’s concerned it won’t be enough to settle the fears of employees and it will be offensive to customers who see it as a sign of government control.

To help people feel more comfortable with stores opening and workers going back to work, the state on Tuesday announced it would mail out 2 million masks to Utahns, in partnership with local businesses. By Wednesday afternoon, the health department reported 82,000 masks had been requested.

“It’s essential that every Utahn wear a mask while out in public,” Dunn said, though the state has not made it mandatory. The mask, she said, “will protect others from your germs.”

The Utah Business Revival group, however, is pushing against that recommendation.

“It’s like starting birth control two months after the baby has already been born,” Eric Moutsos, who helps run the group, told the Deseret News. “It’s like the TSA trying to stop 9-11 after it has already happened. It’s already been done.”

Moutsos, a former Salt Lake City police officer, said, “If you want a mask, wear a mask.” However, he doesn’t think it should be a requirement. And, he thinks small businesses are being hurt by all of it.

“We have the right to say no,” he said. “(The government) is making the pandemic, the scare, the fear, even worse. Our freedoms are slowly wasting away. ... It has to be us that push the envelope, to show a very confused government who really is in charge. They think they’re in charge of us, but they’re not. They are representative of us.”

“The only answer is us,” Moutsos said. “We’re the only answer to this.”

It’s just that type of sentiment that has business owners worried.

Santi is not alone in her concern that following government guidance to wear masks in public places could cause her trouble with those who see the requirement as government overreach. It’s especially concerning for small business owners in rural Utah, like Adam and Melinda Redd.

The couple owns Jackalope Trading Company, which sells the work of local artists, including Melinda Redd, and is a favorite in the small tourist town of Blanding, in San Juan County.

“It’s been hard on us not being opened,” said Adam Redd. “We wish we could be open. We’ve been able to sell a lot of things online. We’re doing curbside pickup, and if people call us and want something, like a birthday present, we walk them through what we have and try to do it that way. The community has been really supportive.”

Unlike Santi’s businesses, which were shut down by health orders, the Redds said San Juan County never really mandated they close their doors. They chose to close on March 21 after seeing the COVID-19 cases increase daily.

“It got to the point where I didn’t think it was safe,” Adam Redd said. “We were having people, as they’re traveling though, stop and shop, and it was just not worth the risk to us or our community. We felt like we had to think about everyone’s safety.”

Despite their struggles after closing their doors, they’re also wrestling with the issues that accompany reopening. Melinda Redd said that while some business owners wanted options, they feel like they could use “some official guidance.”

“That would make it easier,” Melinda Redd said. “I feel like we’re kind of on our own and winging it. We listen to the governor, and we’re looking at CDC guidelines, and then considering what’s going to work for us and let us feel good about keeping our customers safe. Personal responsibility is great, but I feel like a little more guidance would be helpful so we’re all on the same page.”

Now the struggle is how their community will respond to their decision that customers must wear a mask to shop. Their concern comes from their own experiences wearing masks to run their own errands.

“I wear a mask when I go to the grocery store, and I always get funny looks,” Adam Redd said. Adds Melinda Redd, “Some businesses never closed, not for a day. ... It’s hard to see people not social distancing.”

Santi will deal with both situations as she tries to open the doors of both her urban restaurant and her rural eatery.

“Asking customers and employees to wear masks in a rural area that has seen minimal cases of COVID-19 for some may seem restrictive, but as a business owner, how do I balance fear with getting my doors open?” Santi asked. “I have spoken to citizens who are ready to just start living again and for some, asking them to put a mask on is taking away their rights as Americans.

“I worry about customers thinking that I am opening too soon or taking away their rights, but I will do whatever is asked of me to try and get people back in my restaurants so that I can keep my doors open. If that is taking temperatures, sanitizing, wearing masks, I’m ready to do it,” she said.

“If a customer holds a grudge against me or my business for the intent to protect the public and my employees, what is their answer? Risk lives for comfort? Everyone has an elderly loved one or someone that is immunocompromised. Aren’t they worth it for us all to sacrifice putting on a piece of fabric for awhile?”

The breakdown of Utah COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 2,348; 223 hospitalized; 28 deaths.
  • Utah County, 899; 43 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Summit County, 361; 32 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Davis County, 283; 23 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 151; 19 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 147; 7 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • Southwest Utah, 93; 12 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 63; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Bear River, 60; 10 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • San Juan County, 45; 6 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 22; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 12; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 11; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.