SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said face masks will be mandatory in all schools and on all school buses, but he’s avoiding a statewide mask mandate — for now.
Instead, he yet again on Thursday challenged Utahns to reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus by staying home when sick and wearing a mask in public whenever social distancing isn’t possible.
He wants Utah to reduce its rolling seven-day average to less than 500 cases by Aug. 1.
“If we can’t do that, if we don’t do that, it may trigger some more aggressive action by the government,” Herbert said, adding that he’s tried hard to balance slowing the spread of the virus and saving lives, as well as helping the economy recover from the pandemic. He called COVID-19 “the curveball of all curveballs,” as it has impacted every aspect of daily life in the state.
Herbert warned, however, that a mandate “could be in the future.”
“We have the constitutional authority to mandate this,” he said.
His decision on masks comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Utah — another 601 cases were confirmed Thursday, bringing the total number of cases in Utah to 27,356, according to the Utah Department of Health. In the last seven days, Utah has averaged 585 cases a day, with 9.9% of all tests positive.
“Our infection rates are up,” Herbert said, adding that current trends “cannot stand. Our hospital system will become overwhelmed.”
For months, he has stopped short of mandating masks, saying he hopes people will choose to do the “right thing” by wearing a mask to protect the smaller but more vulnerable population — including people over age 65 and those with underlying medical conditions who are more susceptible to severe complications with COVID-19.
Herbert seemed to sing the same theme song on Thursday, pleading with people to “do the right thing.”
“Let’s see if we can’t roll up our sleeves and do the right things for the right reasons,” he said. “We’ve cared about each other in the past ... There really is no excuse for all of us to not wear face coverings.”
He said the state might have made a mistake in its color-coded guidance system, misinforming people of actual risk. Going from red, to orange, and then, to yellow, Herbert said, people thought they didn’t have to take as many precautions.
“We did not anticipate that people would change their behaviors and be more casual and cavalier,” he said. “We’ve become a little complacent and lackadaisical. Let’s take it seriously.”
Nearly half of Utah’s deaths caused by the virus, 97 of them, have been among people between the ages of 65 and 84, with a quarter of the overall death toll — 46 — over age 85.
And, as of Thursday, almost 67% of intensive care beds in hospitals throughout Utah are occupied with COVID-19 patients. Overwhelming the hospital and health care system is something public health and government officials have been concerned about since the pandemic hit Utah in mid-March.
Herbert said the state could handle a seven-day rolling average of up to 800 cases per day, but “as we get up to 800, it’s like the wings coming off a plane,” or “coming dangerously close to the edge of a cliff.”
“We don’t want to wait for that to happen,” he said.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said more younger people, ages 15 to 44, are contracting the virus, resulting in fewer hospitalizations and deaths more recently because of their overall health. But, she said, “all ages should continue to socially distance themselves.”
“The more cases we have in our community ... increases the risk to our vulnerable populations,” Dunn said.
In an effort to attract more users, she said the state’s HealthyTogether smartphone application, which has largely been used on an individual basis to assess symptoms and get referred to testing, will be turning off GPS and Bluetooth tracking capabilities.
Dunn said those features aren’t popular or effective in extensive contact tracing.
Prior to Herbert’s announcement on Thursday, Utah’s legislative leadership voiced opposition on a mask mandate.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Wednesday it “raises questions on enforcement and punishment,” among other issues.
“While (masks) pose a minor inconvenience, I am committed to leading by example, as have many legislators,” Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said on Wednesday. He said “local officials are better positioned to make data-driven decisions regarding face masks that are tailored to their communities.”
In fact, Herbert has granted permission for various local jurisdictions to require masks in public.
Public health orders requiring masks have been issued in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, the city of Springdale, and at all state buildings and agencies.
Some, including the Utah Hospital Association, believe requiring masks is the only way to contain the virus, while others more adamantly believe a mandate would infringe on their rights.
And Herbert is getting pressure from both sides of the issue, including from business leaders trying to stave off another shutdown.
Dunn said that it will take some time to see if more pressure to wear masks will have an effect on the numbers. She has warned that if cases don’t soon plateau and even decrease, it would require backsteps on business and societal restrictions, perhaps even going back into quarantine.
“Show your love, show your respect, show your concern for your neighbor by wearing the mask,” Herbert said. “It’s not a hard thing to do. Let’s all pull together by wearing the mask.”
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 13,646; 920 hospitalized; 124 deaths.
- Utah County, 4,988; 251 hospitalized; 27 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 1,881; 115 hospitalized; 15 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,697; 62 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
- Davis County, 1,644; 101 hospitalized; 6 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 1,396; 94 hospitalized; 14 deaths.
- Summit County, 553; 47 hospitalized; 1 death.
- Wasatch County, 442; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- San Juan County, 441; 60 hospitalized; 11 deaths.
- Tooele County, 315; 12 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Central Utah, 243; 14 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 63; 4 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 47; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.