Summit County Board of Health revisits mask mandate, loosens some standards in response to appeals
The Summit County Board of Health opted for leniency Monday when addressing appeals to the county’s mask mandate from two heavily impacted industries — child care providers and fitness centers.
Representatives of several local child care providers told the board that the practicalities of keeping masks on toddlers have proven difficult and, in some cases, dangerous. They worried about traumatizing a child who adamantly resists wearing a mask.
And a representative of a coalition of fitness centers like yoga studios said that their industry was reeling, with one of their cohort opting to close down until the mask mandate was revoked and others dealing with steep revenue losses.
The board exempted children under the age of 3 from having to wear a mask along with other exceptions, adopting the language from a recent state public health order guiding the use of masks in schools. The county’s current order applies to children 2 or older, while the appellants had asked to remove the mandate for children up to 6 years old.
For fitness centers, the board removed the mandate to wear a mask while strenuously exercising indoors, citing the examples of cardio workouts on treadmills or intense weightlifting. Masks are still required in other areas of fitness facilities.
The changes will be effective when drafted by a county attorney and signed by the chair of the Board of Health, likely later this week or early next. Both amendments passed unanimously.
Local officials, including county councilors, have indicated their goal in mandating mask-wearing is to help keep businesses open during the pandemic, saying repeatedly it is the last tool they have to curb the spread of COVID-19 before reverting to shutting down sectors of the economy. They have said their aim is not to punish residents for not wearing masks or unduly burden people, and as of last week, local law enforcement had not issued any citations for failing to comply with the order.
Board of Health Chair Ilyssa Golding, speaking of the child care appeal, said there was likely a way to move toward a compromise and that there appeared to be goodwill on both sides between care providers struggling to enforce the mask mandate and health officials trying to keep the community safe during the pandemic.
“I don’t think any of us would want to see you force a child to wear a mask, struggle with a child,” Golding told industry representatives. “We’re not going to send the cops in there to check who’s wearing a mask, obviously.”
She asked that child care providers do their best, and the board seemed to indicate understanding with the difficulties of caring for small children.
On Friday, the Utah Board of Health adopted a public health order meant to guide the effort of local schools districts when returning to schools. It requires students above the age of 3 to wear masks, but includes what appears to be a broad exception.
In the state’s order, a child is exempted “if the parent, guardian, or individual responsible for caring for the child cannot place the face covering safely on the child’s face.”
County Board of Health member Chris Cherniak said adopting that language in Summit County’s mask mandate might effectively make the order meaningless.
“That’s not just a safety valve, that’s a loophole you can drive a truck through,” he said.
Health Director Rich Bullough, echoing sentiment from other board members, indicated that he hoped businesses would be motivated to comply with the mask mandate because of the harm that would stem from being the source of an outbreak.
“More than anything, more than any mask order could ever do, that occurring in one of your places of business could hurt your business,” he said. “In fact, it could put it out of business.”
Melissa Garland, who owns a yoga studio with a location in the Basin, represented a coalition of fitness businesses, many of which she said are struggling to stay afloat.
“We dropped to 50% of revenue (as a result of the pandemic),” Garland said. “Now we’ve dropped another 50% as a function of the mask order, like a direct function of the mask order. I don’t know that many will survive at that 25% level.”
Two Snyderville Basin Recreation District employees joined the conversation, with Melissa O’Brien indicating that the taxpayer-supported district has seen its revenue from sources like the Fieldhouse drop by 72% compared to July of last year.
Board member Dorothy Adams is a deputy director of the Salt Lake County Health Department and her fellow board members asked her several times about what she was seeing during her day job in the Valley.
She and Bullough both said that they hadn’t seen the outbreaks in the Wasatch Front tied to fitness centers that they had been expecting, and both indicated that the number of cases tied to vigorously exercising without a mask did not warrant extending a mandate in that circumstance.
In Salt Lake City, Adams indicated, a person could join a spin class without a mask, and Salt Lake County had not seen a spike in cases tied to fitness centers as a result.
Bullough said he had fully expected a spike in cases in Cache County when gyms opened there, but it had not materialized.
He said the Health Department has learned to avoid specifics in orders like these as they tend to prompt more questions. Issues like how many people can be on indoor tennis or basketball court without a mask were not directly addressed, though draft language indicates a cap will be in place. Instead, Bullough indicated that those specifics would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
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Judge Jennifer Brown indicated the breadth of the day’s proceedings left her unable to render a judgment before Hideout’s first scheduled public hearing Wednesday evening.