SALT LAKE CITY — A piece of cloth covering the mouth and nose to prevent the spread of a deadly disease has turned into a political hot button.
The debate over whether to require face coverings in public has become increasingly politicized the past few weeks, even as COVID-19 cases have soared in Utah and other parts of the country with the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
“Public health officials seem to be doing everything they can to emphasize that this should not be a political issue and yet it has been politicized,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
And it often falls out along party lines.
Of the 15 states that have required people to wear masks in some settings during the pandemic, 13 are led by Democratic governors.
Governors in Republican states are reluctant to issue statewide mandates on wearing masks, and in some cases have prevented local governments from taking stronger actions, according to The Hill.
Utah GOP Gov. Gary Herbert finds himself in that situation.
Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson asked Herbert for permission Tuesday to require face coverings in the state’s most populous county. Under a law the Utah Legislature passed earlier this year, the county must get approval from the governor to impose restrictions that exceed statewide orders.
Wilson said in a text message Wednesday she would rather focus on health, not politics right now.
The mayor noted on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave & Dujanovic” Wednesday that the governor and state lawmakers often say decisions are best made at the local level.
“I would hope that the governor takes that message to heart, his own message, and provides me authority to make the choices necessary for health and safety in my community here in Salt Lake County,” Wilson said.
Herbert has repeatedly asked Utahns to wear face coverings in public when social distancing is not possible, but has not gone as far as to issue a mandate.
“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,” the governor’s office said a statement Tuesday.
But he hasn’t ruled out requiring masks to be worn in public, either, and 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.”
Herbert affirmed himself as a “local government guy” at a press conference Wednesday, and hinted that he would grant Wilson’s request after a meeting Thursday with the Unified Command, which oversees the state’s coronavirus response plan.
“I believe in a bottom up approach rather than a top down. I think those people closest to those people on the ground probably know what is in their best interest,” Herbert said.
Asked why he hasn’t issued a statewide mask-wearing mandate, Herbert said the “heavy hand of government sometimes has a negative reaction with the people.”
The governor said he’s hopeful the state can get Utahns to do the right thing for the right reasons “because they love their neighbor.”
The governor, however, said Wednesday he is now requiring employees in the state’s executive branch, including education and state liquor stores, to wear face coverings at work.
If it is going to be mandatory elsewhere, it probably should come from local government leaders so residents can hold them accountable for their decisions, he said.
“I think that’s a better policy approach, and we’re going to take a look at that as a way to do this if we’re going to have mandatory requirements for face masks,” Herbert said.
Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, a Republican, told the St. George News last week that he “will never wear a mask.”
“Our citizens want to be free. And we’re done. We’re just done with whatever color they want to put up. We want to go back to red, white and blue. Let us worry about our health,” said Iverson, who is GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes’ running mate.
Of Iverson’s stance on mask wearing, Herbert said at the press conference, “I don’t know that that’s a very defensible position.”
“We know that not everybody’s in lockstep. I understand that, and that’s one county commissioner that’s not,” the governor said. If Washington County residents support Iverson’s position, they will reelect him. If not, they’ll elect somebody else, Herbert added.
Democratic leaders and rank-and-file Democrats seem more eager to take a different approach to the pandemic and are a little more risk averse than their Republican counterparts, Karpowitz said.
Some of the differences across states have to do with where the virus hit harder at the outset.
“As it hits red states more seriously, as it is right now, will you see more red-state governors willing to call for mandates or more serious guidelines about that?” Karpowitz asked.
People in some instances appear to be taking the cues on whether to wear a mask from President Donald Trump, who has generally refused to wear a mask or set an example for the country. The same goes for Vice President Mike Pence.
“Some of that has been tied to the desire of the Trump administration to either initially downplay the seriousness of this pandemic or to argue that we’re past the worst point. All of that contributes to the difficulty,” Karpowitz said.
Trump told the Wall Street Journal last week he believes that some Americans are wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic not to protect others, but simply to show that they disapprove of him. The president has repeatedly been photographed at public events without a face covering.
“When national leaders aren’t setting an example in their own personal behavior and when they’re not willing to talk about those responsibilities to each other, then we’re missing an opportunity to do simple things that have proven to work in other nations,” Karpowitz said.
Mask wearing, though, is new to Americans.
People on the right say government can’t and shouldn’t impinge on their freedom by requiring them to don a face covering. People on the left seem to willingly put one on and say everyone should be made to wear one.
Karpowitz said while some of that is partisan, some of it stems from “our own more individualistic culture.” He said the evidence he has seen shows that those with more individualistic beliefs are less likely to want to wear masks and less likely to have worn them.
“It is a change in norms. We want to see each other’s faces. We learn a lot from each other, from seeing each other’s faces,” he said.