SALT LAKE CITY — A high percentage of Utahns feel comfortable going into public without masks amid the pandemic, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

The results may be of little comfort to health officials who warn now is not the time to let down our guard, nor to teachers who have raised concerns about the upcoming start of classes.

The poll found 41% statewide are now comfortable without a face covering. Another 4% say it will take a month or so before they feel safe, 6% say two to three months and 10% say three to six months. But there are 19% of Utahns who say it’ll be more than six months before they would be at ease without one, and 5% who say never.

The statewide polling of 1,000 Utah registered voters was conducted by Scott Rasmussen from July 27-Aug. 1. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The percentage of those who already feel comfortable without masks hasn’t changed much since two months ago, when a separate Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll found that 42% were OK without a face covering.

The debate over masks

Dave Nilson, of Garland, Box Elder County, says he’s felt comfortable without a mask throughout the pandemic, and continues to do so. A lifetime athlete, he says he and his wife, along with their five children, have long focused on living healthy lifestyles.

Through his research, Nilson said he’s seen reasons for concern that wearing masks can negatively impact a person’s health. He also said changing beliefs of officials including White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci on mask-wearing — at the outbreak’s onset, officials were not sure all Americans should wear masks, but by April the advice from him and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they should — has led to distrust in the government’s motives.

“I don’t feel responsible for someone else’s immune system. It’s not my responsibility to keep other people healthy, that’s their responsibility,” he said.

Nilson believes those who want to wear masks should do so, but threats or pressure from the government to wear masks are in opposition to the U.S. Constitution.

“I think that’s outright tyranny to demand that I harm my health in order to supposedly benefit somebody else,” he explained. “If somebody wants to wear one and they feel it will protect them, that should be good enough for them.”

Like many others, Nilson is also frustrated with economic impacts as the death rate has been lower than previously thought — and the focus has switched to case counts — as well as mixed messaging as the government has asked people to stay away from each other and wear masks, but also allowed people to destroy property in protests across the country.

But teachers see it differently.

“As a schoolteacher, for me, this is part of the reason why I have anxiety about the whole thing,” Tonia Ziter, a junior high math teacher in Utah County, said Friday of the impending return to the classroom.

She fears those on the front lines who deal with the public on a daily basis, including medical providers and teachers, “will pay the price” for complacency with mask-wearing. Ziter is also concerned large classroom sizes — and the number of parents opposed to their children being required to wear masks — could lead to disaster.

While everyone who chooses to wear a mask in public does so for their own reasons, “I think masks are something that we do for someone else, and not just for ourselves,” Ziter said, adding that she said she won’t feel comfortable without a mask until the virus is either under control or a vaccine is available, whichever comes first.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson sees a sense of urgency on the issue.

“It’s all the more important in the next couple weeks as we attempt to open some schools. ... This is a very, very critical time in combating COVID-19 because once school starts, our cases are going to go up again,” Wilson said. “We should not go to big gatherings where we’re not covering our nose and our mouths, and where we’re not social distancing. Those situations are dangerous.”

Seeing an impact from mask mandate

The state is seeing a decrease in cases “because we are doing things like using face coverings and remembering to social distance,” according to Gary Edwards, Salt Lake County Health Department’s executive director. “But if we let our guard down, we’re going to end up going backward.

“With getting our kids back together in school, we’re going to see increased cases just from that. So we have got to do whatever we can in all other aspects of our society, of our culture, to continue to implement these mitigation measures.”

The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute 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.

Gov. Gary Herbert has not issued a statewide mask mandate — except for in schools when they reopen — but has allowed several counties to require them.

Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties implemented mask mandates in June, and other cities like Logan have recently implemented their own. Since then, officials in Salt Lake and Summit counties have noted a sharp decrease in daily new COVID-19 cases.

In one month after implementing the mandate, Salt Lake County’s share of total cases in the state dropped 16%, Wilson said. The doubling rate of the virus since June 22, meanwhile, decreased from every 30 days to every 70 days.

“You’ve got to look at what we’ve done differently,” Wilson said. “And the one thing that we’ve done differently during that period of time is a face-covering requirement. And they work. Any fatality is one too many, and we’re just going to have to get comfortable with (masks). And I would hope that people in my county, outside of my county, throughout the state, throughout the nation, understand the effectiveness.”

She noted more people are acknowledging the evidence that masks work to decrease spread of the disease, including President Donald Trump.

“I think face coverings are with us until we have an immunization that’s effective,” Wilson said.

Salt Lake residents are largely complying with the mask mandate, but Edwards said something else concerned him when he visited a store recently.

“Everyone had a face covering — everyone — but I was a little disappointed at how many were not wearing them correctly, a number of people not covering the nose, some of them not covering either nose or mouth, having it around their chin. ... And so it’s great that people are wearing the face coverings, but we’ve also got to remember to wear them correctly,” he said.

Relaxing as the risk appears lower is “just kind of human nature for all of us. When things start to get better, we tend to let our guard down a little bit. We’ve just got to remember we’re still a long ways from being over,” Edwards said.

The county mayor says she will “continue to request to the governor that we have a mask mandate until we have a vaccine.”

Herbert said on Thursday any locality can issue a mask mandate and inform the state, rather than wait for permission to do so.

“Mask-wearing is crucial to limiting the spread of COVID-19, particularly while the world waits for vaccines to make it out of trial phases. The governor will continue to reiterate the importance of mask-wearing until the virus is well under control, which will likely not be until a large number of Utahns have been vaccinated against coronavirus,” Anna Lehndart, Herbert’s communications director, said in a statement to the Deseret News.

How long will we need masks?

“I think face coverings are here to stay for the foreseeable future ... and it needs to become part of our culture,” said Dr. Emily Spivak, associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Until a vaccine becomes available to enough of the population to gain widespread immunity, which isn’t expected to happen until next year, “the mask part will be at least deep into 2021,” Spivak said.

As experts warn of a second fall wave of the disease, face coverings are increasingly being viewed as the best tool to keep COVID-19 at bay.

The University of Washington Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that without universal mask-wearing in Utah, the state could see another wave of COVID-19 cases beginning in October and peaking in December, with more than 10,000 cases occurring a day by then. But with most residents masking, the institute says the state could see slower growth during a second wave, with under 1,000 cases occurring at a Dec. 1 peak.

“We’re seeing a roller coaster in the United States,” Dr. Christopher Murray, institute director, said in a statement.

“It appears that people are wearing masks and socially distancing more frequently as infections increase, then after a while as infections drop, people let their guard down and stop taking these measures to protect themselves and others — which, of course, leads to more infections. And the potentially deadly cycle starts over again,” Murray said.

Those working on the institute’s projections, as well as projections being done in Utah, have cautioned that estimates are ever-changing based on the restrictions that are put in place or lifted, and people’s behavior throughout the pandemic.

“It’s hard to say how long we will need to continue wearing masks to help limit the spread of COVID-19. But the most important thing to know is that wearing masks is effective, and right now masks are our best medicine against COVID-19,” Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said in a statement to the Deseret News.

Dunn declined an interview through a spokesman who said she was uncomfortable trying to establish a timeline for how long mask-wearing will be needed.

“Our data show about 80% of Utah adults wear masks ‘always or usually’ when they are in public places. This is encouraging and tells us that mask wearing is becoming more of a social norm. We need people to continue wearing masks to help control transmission until we have more and better options,” Dunn said in the statement.

Many residents might feel comfortable without masks because the state’s curve has leveled off, and they believe it’s safer. But relaxing mask wearing will likely lead cases to go “right back up,” Spivak said.