SALT LAKE CITY — A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows that a significant percentage of Utahns believe Gov. Gary Herbert should issue a statewide mask mandate — something he’s been reluctant to do.
The poll found that 43% of Utahns believe the governor should require everyone to wear a mask in public at all times amid the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s compared to 36% who believe individuals should decide for themselves whether to wear masks, and 18% who said they believe that decision should be made by local governments.
The question around a statewide mask mandate continues to be one of the hottest debates in Utah as state leaders continue to grapple with the pandemic. Herbert has said he prefers to keep the decision voluntary while simultaneously encouraging Utahns to wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of the virus. At the same time, however, Herbert has allowed local jurisdictions, such as Salt Lake and Summit counties, to issue mask mandates — but only with his permission.
“That is a pretty significant number — higher than you might think when you think about just how political the question is,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, noting there is “not great support” to the local government approach.
The poll shows the issue, “like so many surrounding the pandemic, run through a political lens,” Perry said.
Of the 43% of poll respondents who favor a mask mandate, 82% are Democrats and 26% are Republicans, according to the poll. Of those who believe it should be an individual decision, 49% were Republicans, 8% were Democrats, and 31% responded “other” for their political affiliation.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen surveyed 1,000 Utah registered voters July 27-Aug. 1 for the poll. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
When looking only at registered voters in the 4th District who were polled, even more — 47% — believe the governor should issue a statewide mandate while 31% said residents should decide for themselves and 16% said the decision should be made by local governments. The 4th District survey polled 800 in the district and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
In response to a request for comment, the governor’s spokeswoman, Anna Lehnardt, issued a prepared statement Wednesday.
“The governor appreciates that Utahns are responding to his universal call for all Utahns to act responsibly by wearing a face covering when in public and social distancing is not possible,” Lehnardt said. “The governor, along with the lieutenant governor and legislative leadership, remain singularly focused on protecting public health and our economy.”
There is not “a lot of middle ground” to Utahns’ opinions around a mask mandate, Perry said, and yet Herbert’s decisions so far seem to favor that middle-ground approach.
Still, as Herbert navigates the state’s COVID-19 response, the poll also found the governor continues to have fairly strong approval among Utahns, though it has dwindled slightly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The poll found 59% approve of Herbert’s overall job performance, compared to 29% who disapprove. Broken down further, 22% said they strongly approve, 37% said they somewhat approve, 20% somewhat disapprove, and 9% strongly disapprove. About 11% said they didn’t know.
That shows Herbert’s approval is down slightly, when a March poll found 65% approved of the governor’s job performance. In April, that percentage dropped to 60%, then 59% in May.
When asked specifically about Herbert’s job performance regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, Herbert has slightly less favorability, though most Utahns give him a thumbs up. About 57% said they approve, while 36% said they disapprove.
Of those, 22% said they strongly approve, 35% said they somewhat approve, 22% said they somewhat disapprove, and 14% strongly disapprove. About 7% said they didn’t know.
“It’s always risky to be a leader during a time of crisis,” Perry said. “Any elected official needs to be careful in their approach. ... They ultimately take the most praise or the blame because there is a lot of both to go around.”
Amid the pandemic, Herbert has taken his fair share of criticism and praise as the longtime governor prepares to vacate his seat after more than a decade in office. His critics say his “light touch” and collaborative leadership style have turned into a weakness as Utah has lacked a bold leader to make tough decisions to prioritize public health and clamp down on the virus. But his supporters say his collaborative approach is what the state has needed to balance both public and economic health.
“This is not how Gov. Herbert had envisioned his final months in office,” Perry said, noting that many of the governor’s initiatives have been placed on hold as state officials have battled COVID-19. “Anyone who is leading during a time like this will face criticism for decisions that are made.”
But Perry said the poll shows Herbert’s approval ratings have stayed fairly consistent even amid a time of crisis.
“Much of this is because of his history in office,” Perry said. “People give him credit for the things he has done. There has not been a major misstep in the minds of Utahns, up to this point. That’s not to say everyone is happy with his decisions, but 59% still approve, which is still significant considering the circumstance he finds himself in.”
Like the question of mask mandates, Herbert’s approval ratings also tend to fall upon party lines.
Take Cindy Rogers, a Democrat from Salt Lake City, who participated in the poll. She said Wednesday she “isn’t a big Herbert fan” and has strongly disagreed with his reluctance to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying she’s been “terrified” to go back to work as she continues to see people in public who aren’t wearing masks.
Rogers said Herbert hasn’t made the decisions needed to stop the pandemic, and rather he’s taken a “nice guy” approach that advocates for everybody to wear masks, but “nobody does.”
“It has to be mandated, or we’re not going to stop this,” Rogers said, disagreeing with the approach to trust Utahns to use their “better judgment.”
On the other hand, another poll respondent, K. Stewart, a Republican from Riverton, said he approved of Herbert’s job performance and response amid the pandemic.
“He did the best he could, and I think he’s still trying to do the best he can,” Stewart said. “I’m a big believer in self-government and taking care of yourself, and he’s allowed that to happen for the most part.”
Stewart said he believes individuals should be able to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask — and he says his family chooses to wear a mask to protect each other.
“Government has no business micromanaging every aspect of our lives,” Stewart said.
So overall, he praised Herbert’s job performance, saying he’s “done a good job” balancing the response to the pandemic with individual freedom.