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Despite unanimous City Council vote, Provo mayor says she will veto mask mandate

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi speaks at a vigil organized by Unified Allies 4 Change at the Provo Police Department on Friday, June 5, 2020, for all those who have lost their lives to police brutality.
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi speaks at a vigil organized by Unified Allies 4 Change at the Provo Police Department on Friday, June 5, 2020, for all those who have lost their lives to police brutality.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi says she intends to veto a mask mandate unanimously passed by the Provo City Council Tuesday night.

After hours of fine tuning, the council passed an ordinance that would require “all individuals living within or visiting Provo, Utah, to wear face coverings while in indoor or outdoor areas accessible to the public or in attendance at large gatherings.”

There are caveats — those exercising, or gathered with people they live with would be exempt. The order also requires masks “where consistent social distancing of at least six feet from individuals not dwelling in the same household is not possible, reasonable, or prudent,” which Councilwoman Shannon Ellsworth pointed out leaves a lot open to interpretation.

But council members were mostly united behind the ordinance’s over-arching motive — make masks the norm in Provo.

“The vast consensus is that masks help,” said Councilman Bill Fillmore. “Even if we feel that maybe they don’t help me that much in terms of preventing me from getting the virus, it does help other people. … Call it an act of charity.”

However, shortly after the vote, Kaufusi made it clear she would veto the ordinance. She will now have 15 days to either sign or veto it — if she does neither, the mandate will take effect at the end of the 15-day period.

“You and I have the same destination in sight. Where we part is how we get there,” Kaufusi said. “I favor staying on the path we have been on until now ... a law requiring masks would be a step in the wrong direction.”

The council could override the mayor’s decision if five or more of its seven members vote to approve the ordinance once the veto is official.

“I’m obviously very disappointed. And I’m worried, because with a 7-0 vote I feel like we’ve sent a very strong message,” said Councilman George Handley, who told the mayor there’s a strong chance the council would “still push this through.”

Not everyone in Utah County has welcomed masks with open arms.

During an Alpine School District board of education meeting in July, parents railed against the idea of their children being required to wear masks in the classroom.

Just one day later, nearly 100 anti-mask protesters flooded the Utah County Administration Building ahead of a commission vote that could have requested a county-wide “compassionate exemption” from Gov. Gary Herbert’s mask mandate for K-12 schools. The vote was tabled, and the item was ultimately withdrawn by County Commissioner Bill Lee.

The legality of mask requirements — currently enforced in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties — has been the subject of debate among the public. Brian Jones, council attorney, tried to put those doubts to rest Tuesday, noting that the council has broad police powers which include a mandate to pass public health orders.

“That mandate includes providing any kind of laws or regulations that are health related,” Jones said, likening the mask requirement to airbags or seat belts in cars.

“While perhaps more personal — and I think in the view of many, more inconvenient — than some of those other regulations, it still is nevertheless a health and safety regulation and I don’t see any reason to doubt its legality,” he said.

Despite the controversy, which at times runs rampant on social media, the majority of Provo residents appear to be in favor of wearing masks, a sentiment Municipal Council Executive Director Cliff Strachan tried to drive home Tuesday.

Strachan pointed to a survey that received nearly 4,400 responses — 68% said they always or almost always wear a mask in Provo, while only 11% said they don’t.

The most common objections, he said, are the restrictions to personal freedoms, a sentiment that quickly took shape during the meeting’s 15 minute public comment period.

“I hope you can see that what you’re doing, it’s unbelievable that it’s happening in the U.S.,” said Aaron Davidson. “This is communism.”

“At some point in time, we’re all adults here and we need to act accordingly,” said Kevin McCloskey. “We think people should be able to live their lives.”

Not adhering to the mandate would be a civil infraction, similar to a parking violation, and not a criminal offense — anyone in violation could be fined $55. While nothing in the ordinance restricts hosting large gatherings, residents who choose to do so while failing to require masks could be hit with up to $500 in citations.

Not everyone during the public comment period was opposed to the ordinance, and one man, who only identified himself as Richard from Provo, made it clear why he was in favor of wearing masks.

“I support any effort for people to get people to wear masks so we can have BYU football this year. We need football. That’s it. Go Cougars.”