Utah Governor Gary Herbert approved a request by Grand County officials that the public be required to wear masks in indoor public places to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the county.
"We heard of the approval early this morning, and so the next step will be drafting the order which will go to the county attorney to check out the language," said Grand County Chair Mary McGann.
McGann said the mask requirement would take effect late next week, if passed by the council. The recommendation to request the ordinance passed by a 5-2 vote, so a swift passage is likely.
McGann said that Arches and Canyonlands national parks had also put in requests to the federal Parks Service to make mask wearing mandatory in indoor public spaces at the popular tourist areas.
"We'll know about that later today," she said, speculating that with those restrictions the parks could likely open visitor centers back up.
The Moab Sun News has requested the official language of the approved requirement from the Southeast Utah Health Department but have not yet received it.
"The language will be similar to that passed in Summit and Salt Lake counties," said McGann. Mandatory mask usage in Salt Lake County and Summit County was approved and went into effect on June 27.
"They're finding things they did wrong in their ordinances, so we're paying attention," McGann said. "We'll have a clean ordinance that is better because of that."
Herbert approved a similar request by the city of Springdale, gateway to Zion National Park, at the same time. The Governor retains the right to approve or reject local public health ordinances due to recent legislation.
State guidelines already require all businesses to have employees who work with the public wear facial coverings.
At the special session of the Grand County Council held on June 30, McGann said she was convinced that wearing a mask is effective and important enough to push for mandatory compliance. She referenced other public health laws, like anti-smoking and mandatory seat belt laws, that have had significant positive outcomes.
“Grand County’s economy is fragile,” McGann said. “We cannot afford huge increases in cases in our county. I do not want to take a step backwards like Florida and Texas have had to do.”
Both those states have reinstated COVID-19 restrictions that had been lifted.
Councilmember Greg Halliday told the council that his brother had contracted COVID-19 and unknowingly passed the virus on to his immediate family. Halliday stressed the seriousness of the public health risk.
“My brother and his wife spent upwards of six hours each in the emergency room, trying to breathe,” said Halliday. “That’s reality.”
He noted that their extended family did not get infected, even though his brother visited several family members belonging to high-risk demographics before he was aware he was carrying the virus. Halliday said that’s because they met outdoors and were wearing masks.
“Wearing a mask is a very, very small thing to do to maintain our health and economic viability,” said Halliday.
Councilmember Rory Paxman expressed doubts about the necessity and practicality of a mask mandate, noting that he’s seen many people wearing their masks incorrectly and wondering how enforcement of such a mandate would work. Paxman said the council should be focusing on how to help struggling businesses.
“We're already hurting in our business. And I just see that this is going to cause a lot of problems with visitors and employees,” said Paxman.
Citizen Lori McFarland called in during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting to say she opposed the creation of laws that will be difficult to enforce.
“I think it's important that we create legislation that's effective, but not superfluous, and continue to allow people to make smart, conscious, healthful choices, rather than mandating those choices,” she said. “I prefer that we don't ask law enforcement to enforce things that are impossible to enforce.”
Councilmember Jaylyn Hawks said she wished that people were consistently wearing masks voluntarily “because it’s the right thing to do.” She described models published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that predicted that with universal mask-wearing, COVID-19 deaths over the next three months could be cut in half.
“To me, those numbers speak. And this site has been really accurate in predicting how this thing will play out so far,” Hawks said.
“I would like people to do it voluntarily,” Hawks said of wearing masks. “But we've had the last month or six weeks to decide whether or not we're going to do it voluntarily and it doesn't look like that's happening.”
Also on the agenda was a discussion of whether the county should request a shift to the green, or “new normal” risk status as outlined in the Utah Leads Together state plan. Green status would, for example, remove limits on group gathering size and requirements for table spacing in restaurants. Southeast Utah Health Department Director Bradon Bradford said that Grand County does meet the state criteria to move to the green level of risk, but that the governor had said on June 24 that he won’t be approving any changes in risk-status for the next two weeks.