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Mayor seeks permission to require face masks in Salt Lake County

Law says county can’t enact stricter rules without governor approval

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson wears a mask as Gary Edwards, health department executive director, discusses the county’s phased reopening plan during a press conference at the county’s Emergency Management Emergency Coordination Center in South Salt Lake on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson wears a mask as Gary Edwards, health department executive director, discusses the county’s phased reopening plan on April 29, 2020. Wilson on Tuesday says she plans to ask the governor permission to require face masks be worn in Salt Lake County.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a spike in Utah COVID-19 cases, the mayor of the state’s most populous county has asked the governor for permission to enact a countywide face covering requirement.

“It’s time we do more,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson told the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday, expressing deep concern about Utah’s “dramatic” spike in cases in recent days.

“The trend is not good,” the mayor said, adding that it’s apparent that some Utahns are wearing face coverings while others aren’t. “I think we’ve fallen into a state of complacency.”

In her letter to Gov. Gary Herbert requesting permission to require Salt Lake County residents to wear face masks while they’re out in public, Wilson cited recent studies that have confirmed the effectiveness of face coverings.

One is a study conducted in Hong Kong that found the rate of noncontact transmission dropped by as much as 75% when masks were used. The mayor also cited another study published by The Lancet, saying transmission of COVID-19 without a face covering or respirator (like an N95 mask) was 17.4%, but fell to 3.1% when face coverings are worn — a risk reduction of 82%.

“I know you continue to be concerned, as I do, with rising number of cases of COVID-19 in our state,” Wilson wrote to Herbert. “Salt Lake County’s increase in cases has the potential to negatively impact our health care system as well as create an operational impact on testing, lab processing capacity and contract tracing.”

Wilson said the county public health order would not mandate residents to wear masks while recreating outside or in parks, but they would be required in retail or commercial establishments, at restaurants while waiting to be seated and served, and at community gatherings.

The mayor said the requirement would be enforced the same way other Salt Lake County COVID-19 health orders have been in the past — with first a “gentle warning” from law enforcement, focused on education. Repeat offenses would not lead to arrests, but fines.

“This is a health issue,” Wilson said. “This isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t a political football.”

Under legislation passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year, Salt Lake County must seek permission from the governor to enact any additional COVID-19 restrictions that are more strict than the governor’s statewide orders.

Herbert’s office, in a prepared statement sent to the Deseret News later Tuesday, did not indicate whether Herbert will approve Wilson’s request. It noted that the governor supports face coverings, but is “concerned” about a mandate. But he didn’t rule it out, either.

“Gov. Herbert strongly supports mask wearing in public when social distancing is not possible because it is a sign of respect for the health and well-being of others,” the statement said. “He is concerned that requiring masks could create divisive enforcement issues at a time when we need to come together of our own accord around a shared concern for one another’s health. That said, local health departments should bring their data and analysis to the Utah Department of Health if they believe there is a need to vary from the current guidelines.”

Members of the Salt Lake County Council also signaled support for Wilson’s request, agreeing to also send a letter to Herbert to demonstrate its support, though Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton expressed concern about mask “mandates,” worrying about people with medical conditions that make it difficult for them to wear masks.

“I cannot think of anything more patriotic than putting on a mask, going to the grocery store and buying something,” Councilman Jim Bradley said. “If we’re going to get our economy going again ... that’s absolutely critical.”

Bradley also said when governors, like Herbert, leave it up to the “wisdom of the individual” to decide whether to wear a face covering, “it kind of minimizes the importance” of the issue.

Later Tuesday, the council also voted to extend Salt Lake County’s public health emergency for COVID-19 until Aug. 20, but not until Dec. 31 as requested by Wilson. Some council members, including Winder Newton, were reluctant to extend the order that far out, concerned about allowing the executive branch to have emergency powers for that long.

Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the Democratic mayors of Utah’s largest county and city, both took to Twitter earlier Tuesday to call on Herbert to require face masks, the day after state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn issued a memo warning of a potentially overwhelmed hospital system if the current spike of COVID-19 cases doesn’t level out by July 1.

“We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown,” Dunn wrote. “This might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak.”

In her memo, Dunn wrote that if the state does not reach a rolling seven-day average of 200 cases per day by July 1, it needs to move back to orange or moderate risk, which would limit social gatherings to 20 while continuing to call for social distancing and wearing masks in public settings.

Dunn also called for government or businesses to mandate wearing masks and recommended the state not ease social distancing restrictions anywhere in the state until July 1.

Herbert, in a tweet, thanked Dunn for her analysis and pledged state leaders will “work to stem this tide,” but said he has “no plans to shut down Utah’s economy.”

Referring to that tweet, Wilson responded: “Governor, required face coverings in public will go a long way. Let’s do that.”

Mendenhall also weighed in.

“Masks are estimated to be 75% to 82% effective at preventing the spread of COVID,” Mendenhall tweeted. “Requiring they be worn in public statewide could help us turn the tide and save lives, @GovHerbert.”

Wilson told the Deseret News she hopes Herbert will approve her request. If he doesn’t, she said there’s not another option for the county to enact the requirement.

“I don’t think we have another recourse other than the bully pulpit,” Wilson said, noting that Salt Lake County officials have for months been encouraging residents to wear face masks while out in public. “Unfortunately that doesn’t leave us much more.”

Wilson said a county requirement would also relieve pressure from businesses that are already requiring face coverings, but face public backlash because of it.

“This is an attempt to have the public understand the importance of this,” she said.