PROVO — For months, Utah County, one of Utah’s most conservative counties that has garnered national attention for anti-mask protests, has held off from issuing a mask mandate as a tool to control the spread of COVID-19.

But late Tuesday, that changed. Utah County leaders were forced to confront the reality that their region has been largely driving a statewide spike in cases, and were under pressure of the possibility that Gov. Gary Herbert could issue countywide economic restrictions if local leaders didn’t act.

Now, the Utah County commissioners who approved the public health order are dealing with the political fallout — and questions about how the mask mandate will be enforced, especially after Utah County’s own sheriff spoke out earlier this week saying he would not enforce mask mandates and the issue shouldn’t be criminalized.

In response to an interview request Wednesday, Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said Sheriff Mike Smith would not comment further beyond his statements from Monday, but Cannon told the Deseret News the sheriff’s office will be taking a soft and education-focused approach to enforcing the mask mandate.

It’s a similar approach other more liberal-leaning counties, like Salt Lake and Summit, have taken when implementing their mask mandates. But while violations of those counties’ public health orders could technically be enforced under state code as a class B misdemeanor, Utah County’s public health order explicitly states it would not “impose criminal penalties.”

“If we encounter a circumstance where there appears to be individuals in violation of this mandate, the most we’re going to do ... is encourage them to educate themselves on the issue,” Cannon said, adding that in no way will Utah County’s enforcement be “heavy handed.”

To Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee — the only one of three county commissioners who did not sign onto the order mandating masks — enforcement is the “biggest question” and one of the reasons why he wasn’t supportive.

“We have a paper tiger with no teeth,” Lee said. “We have a law with no consequence. So in essence, we have a paper mandate, but it’s not really a mandate. And all it is is public virtue signaling and grandstanding.”

But to Utah County Commission Chairman Tanner Ainge, the intent of the mask mandate is to send a clear message and a “call to action” to Utah County residents to “step up and do their part” in fighting the pandemic.

“Everybody loves to dig into this question,” Ainge said about enforcement of the mask mandate, but he questioned how many times Salt Lake or Summit county officials have enforced their mask mandates with criminal penalties.

Salt Lake County, according to a health department spokesman, has issued zero penalties or citations to individuals for not complying with the public health order. For businesses, only two warnings and two orders have been issued. So it isn’t the enforcement that matters, it’s the message — and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has lauded the county’s mask mandate as a tool that works, according to county COVID-19 case data after the governor allowed the mask mandate to go in effect.

Under pressure

Ainge said Utah County commissioners decided to move forward with the mask mandate under pressure from Herbert’s office and from COVID-19 case data showing Utah has been facing a statewide spike, with Utah County responsible for 42% of the state’s cases last week despite having only 20% of the state’s population, according to Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

“My hope is that all Utah County residents would have a similar reaction when they hear state health officials start indicating there is a statewide spike and Utah County is a primary driver,” Ainge said. “My hope is that the reaction is that doesn’t reflect well on our community, and we want to protect our community’s (health) ... and keep businesses open.”

Mask mandates have been a politically charged issue in Utah County. Utah County made national headlines after anti-mask protesters filled the Utah County Commission’s chamber to protest school mask requirements. Ainge pulled the plug on the meeting, citing violations to public health orders, as the crowd ignored social distancing guidelines and packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the room.

Utah County residents pack into the Utah County Commision chambers in Provo on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 in Provo, to voice their opinions on a state mandate that students in grades K-12 wear masks in schools. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Lee has been a staunch opponent to mask mandates — and government mandates as a philosophy. Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who lost re-election in the GOP primary in July, has said he believes wearing face masks is a “smart” thing to do, but he had been against a government-issued mandate.

Ivie and Ainge both signed a letter Tuesday night, along with Utah County Health Director Ralph Clegg, explaining their decision to support the mask mandate in hopes of avoiding an overwhelmed health care system and a countywide slide toward more economic closures.

“If the recent trajectory of cases were to continue, our health care system’s capacity could be at risk and the entire county may be put back into the orange level restrictions,” the letter states.

Lee, who didn’t sign Tuesday’s letter, said he was “frustrated” by the decision of his two commission colleagues to ratify the public health order. Lee told the Deseret News Wednesday he worries a government mandate will only further divide Utah County residents, and lead to noncompliance.

“When the government steps in and says, ‘This is how it’s going to be done,’ it seems to be a lower form of finding a better way to do this,” he said.

While Utah County’s anti-mask protests have gone viral across the country, Lee said he already sees many Utah County residents wearing masks while in the community. “This notion that everyone down here in Utah County is not protecting themselves is a false narrative,” he said.

Ainge, however, said Utah County has a lower percentage of residents who wear masks compared to counties like Salt Lake.

To Lee, the real issue is from college-aged students who are experiencing “new freedom from their parents” and are socializing, having parties and generally ignoring COVID-19 guidelines. Lee also noted that the city of Provo, after the Provo City Council overrode Mayor Michelle Kaufusi’s veto, implemented a mask mandate over three weeks ago, and there has still been a spike.

“It didn’t work,” Lee said, arguing that residents will comply with mask wearing not because of a government mandate, but when they have a “self interest” in keeping their own families or communities safe. That’s why Lee argued health department officials need to provide local elected officials “more granular level” data about COVID-19 hot spots to give more specific areas warnings about an outbreak in real time, perhaps using a reverse 911 call, rather than a sweeping mandate that he predicted will only anger Utah County residents.

Political divide

“Putting a mask mandate in place is going to divide,” Lee said. “It’s going to cause problems. People are going to start pointing fingers, people are going to ask, ‘Why are you wearing a mask?’ ... Those kinds of things will go on and they do go on.”

Lee also said he was frustrated that Ainge and Ivie approved the mask mandate after a public meeting that had been scheduled for Tuesday with the issue as an agenda item was canceled.

Lee accused Ainge of “ramrodding” the mandate through without having a public discussion. But Ainge noted that Utah County officials had been discussing the possibility of a mask mandate in an emergency call with mayors on Friday — a call that was open to members of the media.

Ainge said that Tuesday meeting was canceled because there was still “a lot of deliberation happening” on how Utah County would proceed. Then Herbert announced the slip back to moderate restrictions for Orem and Provo and made it clear Utah County needed to take swift and timely action to address the spike in order to avoid more restrictions, Ainge said.

While Herbert took a more “targeted approach” by reverting Orem and Provo back to orange level restrictions, Ainge said the governor could have decided to move the entire county to orange — something county leaders wanted to avoid.

“To prevent the rest of the county from being put back to orange, it was prudent to hurry and put these policies into place,” Ainge said.

Ivie on Wednesday said the biggest factor in his decision to support the mask mandate was “preventing the governor from moving us to orange” countywide.

“The Governor made it clear we could issue a public health order requiring mask when social distancing wasn’t an option or he would move the whole county to orange,” Ivie tweeted Tuesday. “We can’t afford that fall back so I will support the order.”

Ainge said he personally supports the mask mandate after the state health department, the governor, and data from Dunn “all indicated this can actually help stop the spread and deal with the spike and keep us from reverting back to orange on a countywide basis.”

“I’m willing to take whatever action is necessary,” he said. “Even if it’s upsetting and inconvenient for people, I think it’s better than the alternative.”

Ainge said so far the reaction to the mask mandate has been “mixed” from Utah County constituents.

“Look, unfortunately this is a controversial issue,” Ainge said. “For months now, I’ve been getting a lot of negative messaging on the topic. My perspective is, in working with the state health department, the governor’s office ... really most people are just trying to do their best.”

He said not all decisions and data are “perfect,” but “everyone around the table cares about the economy. Everybody cares about the health care system ... and trying to take the steps that they believe will have the best outcomes.”

Utah County’s mask mandate is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 20, but it could be lifted sooner based on COVID-19 case data, Ainge said.

“This is a call to action and a challenge,” he said “Regardless of how we feel about being required to wear a mask or do it voluntarily, right now we have a lower percentage of our population that is following the mask guidelines than Salt Lake County and other neighboring counties.

“So I hope we all take that upon ourselves as a challenge to bring that up so we can mitigate this spike and demonstrate we as a community care about this pandemic.”