SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision to hold off on issuing a statewide mandate that face coverings be worn in public despite a continued climb in Utah’s COVID-19 cases appears to be his attempt to muzzle some of the political rhetoric about masks.
“I don’t want this to become a divisive issue, which we already see,” the governor said. “Now, maybe that we’ve got past the campaigns for governor and others out there, maybe it will become less politicized, I hope. We don’t want to have a divisive situation where people rebel. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
Utah is not joining some two dozen states including Texas, California, Nevada and Pennsylvania that require masks be worn in public because state legislative and business leaders as well as others agreed it’s best to try a voluntary approach first, Herbert said. He is giving Utahns until Aug. 1 to reduce the number of cases.
At that point, if Utahns still aren’t going along with what health experts say will help stop the spread of the deadly virus, the governor said he’ll be forced to choose between mandating masks or returning to some of the restrictions put in place at the start of the pandemic months ago.
It’s not clear how effective Herbert’s pleas will be, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, especially as President Donald Trump continues to be dismissive of recommendations from medical experts, including wearing a mask.
The state’s response to COVID-19 was an issue in the recent Utah GOP gubernatorial primary election won by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as well as in other races, with some candidates saying the Herbert administration was already too heavy-handed even before a mask mandate was proposed.
As the governor “continues to attempt to walk a very fine line between government intervention and restraint,” Karpowitz said he’s also making it clear there will be consequences if Utahns don’t act, although “fundamentally changing attitudes and behaviors at this point could be a tall order.”
Utah, the political science professor said, “has prided itself on its volunteer spirit and high levels of social capital in the past. The governor is counting on those advantages again, though the numbers sadly indicate that it has not been sufficient to this point.”
The politics have put the governor in a tough spot, Karpowitz said. With Trump likely fueling distrust in government actions against the virus, he suggested the politicization of the issue will not change just because the primary is finished.
“Gov. Herbert is confronting a vexing leadership challenge: how to simultaneously show respect for individual liberty and promote collective action to protect public health,” he said, amid national messages that are “mixed and muddled, making it harder to convince Utahns to take the sort of voluntary action the governor prefers.”
The Democratic nominee for governor, Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, said he believes “the state government has been moving too slowly in leading the public to make sure the mask issue is not politicized and masks are required in hot spots where the virus is escaping like a genie in a bottle.”
But Peterson said rather than a statewide mandate, he prefers that the state step in only in places where local officials have failed to take needed action to address an increase in cases.
“In terms of our politics on this, the biggest obstacle is that the president of the United States refuses to wear masks, refuses to act and to lead in helping people understand the medical science. Frankly, we just don’t have the moral leadership we need from Washington right now,” Peterson said.
“That’s creating real problems for us here at home,” he said. “Many Utahns support the president and feel that masks, requiring masks is uncomfortable for them politically. We are a freedom- and a liberty-loving state. I sympathize with that and I agree. But the challenge is sometimes we have to make some personal sacrifices.”
Cox “has been very outspoken for some time now about the importance of wearing masks. The lieutenant governor is supportive of the direction the governor took today, and joins him in his challenge to all Utahns to do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19,” his chief of staff, Kirsten Rappleye, said.
Herbert did announce a new requirement that masks be worn in K-12 schools, by students, faculty and staff, and he has already allowed Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, as well as the town of Springdale outside Zion National Park, to issue their own mask orders.
The governor’s decision not to go as far as a statewide mask mandate comes a day after both Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, released statements encouraging Utahns to wear masks rather than demanding they comply with a government order.
However, the Utah Hospital Association, led by Herbert’s former lieutenant governor, Greg Bell, also asked that masks be made mandatory, citing “unsustainable” impacts on hospitals and health care workers as more and more Utahns become infected despite public service campaigns about the need to cover their faces in public.
And the Salt Lake Chamber said last week that efforts to promote wearing masks “must be coupled with reasonable government regulation” and asked that state health guidelines be updated “to include the requirement to wear a mask in public places when social distancing is not feasible.”
Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller, who served as Herbert’s chief of staff, said he’s surprised wearing masks has become such a political issue.
“I don’t view it as a political issue. I view it as a very practical issue and I think that’s the way we ought to view it,” Miller said. “I’m a very pragmatic person, if there’s something I can do that’s pretty easy to do. I don’t like wearing a mask. I do it because medical experts tell me I’m helping people.”
Miller said he believes even without a mandate, Utahns can be convinced wearing a mask is a way of looking out for those around you through a “very robust public awareness campaign.” The governor said lawmakers have set aside $1 million for the effort.
Americans have been successfully persuaded in the past to accept changes in behavior in the name of public safety, Miller said, such as banning smoking in offices and public places because of the effect of secondhand smoke on others.
“We’ve just realized this is not the right thing to do anymore,” he said.