Utahns are split over whether the statewide mask mandate put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 should end on Saturday, and only a few believe the Utah Legislature’s decision should be up to just elected officials, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Results released Thursday showed 44% of Utahns believe the mask mandate should continue beyond the April 10 date set in a new law passed before the 2021 Legislature ended last month, while 20% said the date was reasonable, 14% said it should have been sooner, and 17% said there should have never been a mandate.

The poll also found that 38% think public health experts should have decided when the mask mandate should be lifted, while just 4% would have left it up to elected officials and 3% to economic leaders and experts. Most Utahns, 42%, wanted to see the date set by a combination of those groups.

The poll was conducted April 6-8 of 610 registered Utah voters for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The results didn’t surprise Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who suggested there’s some confusion about what will happen come Saturday.

“I think there’s a little bit of a misconception that when the mandate goes away, that masks will no longer be worn. That’s just not the case. I think that in the majority of cases, masks will continue to be worn when appropriate,” Adams said, giving flexibility to what he described as “so responsible” Utahns.

HB294, the bill that removed the statewide mask mandate put in place last November by then-Gov. Gary Herbert, allows private and public entities to require masks, at least until the state receives 1.63 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, likely in mid-May, as long as case counts and hospitalization rates remain low.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has announced masks must continue to be worn in public, but Salt Lake County is only requiring masks at county facilities. Gov. Spencer Cox, who wanted to wait to lift the statewide mandate until the vaccine dose threshold had been reached, has already issued a similar order for state buildings.

K-12 students will still have to wear masks through the end of the school year in June.

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Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the April 10 date in the bill was not arbitrary.

“That’s not true. We looked at where we were at. We forecasted where we thought we’d be with vaccinations, and where we thought case counts and hospitalizations might be and picked that date. Was it perfect? Probably not. Could it have been a little sooner? Maybe. Could it, should it have been a little later? Maybe,” Wilson said.

The speaker also said lawmakers didn’t unilaterally lift the statewide mask mandate but instead shifted the decision-making to the local level, specifically county councils or commissions, in consultation with local health departments.

“At some point, we have to do that. We have to do something to get out of this. You want to wear a mask forever? People don’t want to wear a mask forever. There has to be a strategy to unwind this,” Wilson said. “We had to have some structure.”

Adams said the Legislature’s passage of what was called the pandemic “endgame” bill actually reflects the involvement of public health experts and the business community that Utahns said in the poll they wanted to see.

“We kind of think we’ve listened to everyone,” he said. “I’ve seen some states just throw the doors wide open and that didn’t work very well for them. And I’ve seen other states close all the doors, and I don’t think that’s worked very well. Utah’s blended approach, just like the poll indicated, has worked extremely well in my opinion.”

Jazz fans Halston Brown, left, and James Robinson pose for a photo before a Jazz game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on April 8.
Utah Jazz fans Halston Brown, left, and James Robinson pose for a photo before the Jazz game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 8, 2021. Masks are required for fans attending Jazz home games. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

Jacob Stout, a technical writer from Midvale, believes the statewide mask mandate is being lifted too soon.

“I’ve seen a lot of fears raised that it’s too early to open all of the economy. We haven’t received high enough herd immunity yet. But, personally, I have a stake in it because I have three immunocompromised kids,” Stout said. “It’s been stressful. Anxiety inducing.”

He said public health officials should be determining when it’s safe to stop requiring face coverings.

“That’s where I’d put my stock. I think it’s important to listen to everybody, but the ultimate decision should come down to the health experts,” Stout said, adding he only recently learned from social media that state lawmakers were ending the statewide mandate. “They should be ashamed.”

“I think there’s a little bit of a misconception that when the mandate goes away, that masks will no longer be worn. That’s just not the case. I think that in the majority of cases, masks will continue to be worn when appropriate.” — Utah Senate President Stuart Adams

But Ambre Fowlke, a self-employed mother in Elk Ridge, said the Utah Legislature should be celebrated for ending the mask mandate.

“I thought it was a great move. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” Fowlke said. She said the requirement infringed on her constitutional rights. “I don’t believe it’s the government’s place to mandate health or force medical device use.”

The only time Fowlke said she’s worn a mask is when she had surgery. Calling the COVID-19 cases family members have experienced “just a little cold,” Fowlke said she’s not worried about catching or passing along the virus “because I know health is everybody’s individual responsibility. I wash my hands. I don’t sneeze on people.”

Fans cheer during the Jazz game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 8, 2021. Masks are required for fans attending Jazz home games. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

Rasmussen said people are politically polarized when it comes to the virus, both nationally and in Utah. The poll showed stark differences between Republicans and Democrats, with a whopping 90% of Democrats saying Saturday is too soon to end the mandate, compared to 21% of Republicans.

A quarter of the Republicans polled said the mandate never should have happened, but not a single Democrat agreed. And three-quarters of Democrats want public health experts making decisions, while just over half of Republicans prefer a combination that also includes elected officials and business leaders.

“So this partisan difference, part of it is because we live in a polarized world. Part of it’s because Democrats just in general are more comfortable with government taking the lead on things, and Republicans, at least Republican voters, tend to be more comfortable with letting individuals decide things. It’s just become a partisan issue.”

Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he and other Democrats opposed the bill as “overreaching in putting in place these kinds of arbitrary deadlines,” while, as a whole, the Republicans dominating the Legislature have “been a lot more skeptical of the mask mandates.”

King said the end date for the mask mandate is unwise at best, and “at worst, it endangers public health and people’s safety. We just don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Hinckley Institute Director Jason Perry said the controversy surrounding masks may be around for a while.

“Until we emerge from this pandemic and get to what is our new normal, I think we’re still going to have a lot of disagreement about the mask mandate,” Perry said. “To the question of whether or not we’re still going to have some friction, the answer clearly is yes.”

He said that’s not what he expected.

“I’m still a little surprised at the political divide that exists,” Perry said. “I had hoped that the politics of masks would start to go away as we start to emerge, as more people are vaccinated, as we see light at the end of the tunnel. What we see in this poll is that politics still remains very much at the heart” of the issue.