SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of a “dramatic increasing infection rate” in Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert punctuated his plea for Utahns to wear masks in public with an announcement that he is signing an executive order requiring masks in state buildings overseen by his office, and saying he’ll probably approve Salt Lake County’s request to make masks mandatory.

“Where we have control over it, with our own facilities, we’re going to be requiring people to have masks when they come and do business with the state,” he said, acknowledging that this will require a shift in thinking for many people.

“I also understand that wearing a face covering is something that’s not normal for us. It’s not part of our culture. It’s certainly not part of our habits. ... And so we have to change our habits and change how we think about going outside and interact with people in the community.”

People wear masks as they walk on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Herbert took the significant step of signing an executive order requiring face masks in all state buildings under the control of the executive branch, including state offices, higher education facilities and liquor stores.

What’s more, the governor said a request to require masks in public in Salt Lake County will be considered Thursday and, if supported by health department data, will be approved.

Wednesday’s COVID-19 case numbers were sobering. With 484 new cases, the most alarming statistic was that of those tested in the last 24 hours — about 20% were positive. The state’s overall positive rate is around 9%, but that’s increased steadily, from as low as 4.2% at one point to setting record after record for positive results in the last 10 days.

Hospitalizations remain manageable with 30 new hospitalizations in the last 24 hours. Of note, 253 of those 484 new cases were residents of Salt Lake County.

There were no new deaths reported Wednesday, and officials consider 10,334 of the state’s overall 18,784 coronavirus patients to be recovered. Herbert offered a variety of reasons for wearing a mask, even if someone has been opposed in the past.

“A recently published compilation of 172 studies on the subject found that mask wearing significantly reduces the risk of viral spread,” he said. “I can understand, too, that sometimes this has been confusing. We’ve had some early public health officials that said, in effect, we don’t need to wear masks. ... But the consensus now is that masks not only protect the wearer, but it protects the people around him, too.”

He acknowledged there would be resistance and talked about all the entities, including various business and faith leaders, who will help encourage people to see wearing a mask as an act of service.

Herbert read parts of a statement from Utah faith leaders saying that while they pray for an end to the pandemic, “the reality is that our actions must accompany those prayers.”

“We, the undersigned Faith Community Leaders, appeal to people of faith all over the state to wear masks and practice physical distancing, sacrificing a small measure of comfort for the sake of saving lives,” said the statement that was signed by at least 28 religious leaders. “We recall that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like unto it, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. One cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while deliberately putting them at risk.”

On Tuesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and the County Council sent a request to Herbert asking for permission to require face coverings in the county, which currently represents 50% of the state’s positive cases. Herbert said the review process the state has in place will conclude with a discussion on Thursday, but he anticipates the data will support the mayor’s request.

Mayor seeks permission to require face masks in Salt Lake County

“I am a local control person,” he said. “I believe those closest to the people are in that local government arena. ... So I would expect if the data proves out, the request from the county mayor and their council ... and with their health department’s concurrence, we will grant their request for them to be able to make it a mandatory requirement to wear a face mask in Salt Lake County.”

Salt Lake County has some of the hardest-hit communities, with about 56% of the state’s hospitalizations and 65% of the state’s deaths. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall sent a letter to Herbert adding her support to Wilson’s request for mandatory masks.

After three weeks of daily protests begging for police reform in Salt Lake City, it seems problematic to create a situation where a mask — or lack thereof — could become a legal issue for someone.

“Clearly that’s a challenge,” Herbert said of how a mask requirement would be enforced. He noted that the county has indicated the mandate would be loosely enforced, perhaps with fines, assuring he doesn’t anticipate enforcement will be “draconian.”

He hopes people “will just do it without government’s heavy hand.”

Additionally, Herbert said he won’t consider loosening any restrictions on communities for at least two weeks. Currently, most of the state is in the yellow (few restrictions) phase of Herbert’s Utah Leads Together plan, with several rural counties and communities in green (no restrictions). Salt Lake City is one of the few places that remains orange.

“That’s always been on the table,” he said of moving the state from yellow back to the more restrictive orange phase. “We hope that doesn’t happen. Again, these next two weeks will be somewhat critical, and we’ll see how people’s behaviors change. We hope they’ll change for the better. And if we can get on top of this infection rate and turn it to go in the other direction, I would hope there would be no need to dial it back (to orange).”

Of note, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said only two cases could be traced to the protests, and most people still contract the virus from work or family environments. Only about 13% of cases are “community spread,” which means contract tracers don’t know how the patient became infected.

The mask mandate comes on the heels of the Salt Lake County Health Department’s decision due to huge demand to suspend a program that offered free walk-in testing in the hardest-hit areas of Salt Lake City.

An event in Glendale Monday afternoon drew hundreds of people, overwhelming Salt Lake County officials working the event with more than four times the number of people they’ve had seek testing at similar events in the past.

On Tuesday, the health department canceled seven other scheduled events in those communities, saying it needed to “restock and reevaluate” how to more efficiently administer tests.

The targeting is critical to helping officials gain the upper hand on outbreaks in those communities. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than half of Salt Lake County’s 9,460 COVID-19 cases are residents of five communities — Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Taylorsville, Kearns and Magna.

For those communities disproportionately impacted, there can be many barriers to testing — location, perceived cost or insurance requirements, language barriers, fears about what happens with a positive test, and privacy concerns — and most agree testing is a vital first step in controlling any outbreaks.

People wait in their vehicles for drive-thru COVID-19 testing outside of Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 22, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Testing is critical,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla, whose district includes parts of west Salt Lake City and West Valley City. She helped organize a COVID Community partnership initiative that attempts to solve those issues in cooperation with the communities suffering. “Without testing, you don’t even know where the issues are.”

Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp pointed out there are 17 other places where people can be tested, and it is free if a person doesn’t have insurance. But only four of those facilities are in the communities targeted by this program. There are three in the southwest corner of the valley where a fraction of the cases have been reported.

On Wednesday, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut issued travel advisories that said people coming from Utah and eight other states with increasing cases will have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

“I will compare our infection rates, mortality rates and our economic expansion to New York any time,” Herbert said in response to the news. “That doesn’t mean we should ignore the red-flag warning of increased infection rates. We’re concerned about it, and I expect everybody in the state should be concerned about it.”

He said there were Utahns who refused to travel to the tri-state area because of their high infection and mortality rates. In fact, dozens of Utah nurses rushed to New York and New Jersey to help care for patients when their outbreak was at its worst in May.

“It’s just an indication of concern, and we share that concern,” Herbert said. “In fact, we’re going to ramp up our efforts and lengthen our strides and put more emphasis on what we should be doing with common sense behavior, and I think the people of Utah will respond.”