Summit County gets permission from Gov. Herbert to mandate masks in public (updated)
Summit County officials Thursday evening received permission from Gov. Gary Herbert to mandate that everyone within the county, with limited exceptions, wear face coverings while in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a spokesperson for the governor confirmed.
The county requested that authority in a message sent earlier in the day to Gen. Jefferson Burton, interim director of the Utah Department of Health, that sought the ability to compel residents and visitors to wear masks with the aim of preserving hospital capacity and protecting the local economy. The letter was signed by Summit County Manager Tom Fisher, Health Director Rich Bullough and County Council Chair Doug Clyde.
The mandate is targeted at people entering indoor spaces and is not intended to force people to wear masks while engaging in outside activities like going for a run or a bike ride, said Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson.
The draft of a public health order included in the letter to Burton states that Summit County residents and visitors would be required to completely cover their nose and mouth any time they are in an indoor public space like a business or waiting to enter one; seeking medical care; at their workplace in any space visited by the public or where food is prepared; or at a community gathering.
Someone walking up Main Street or going on a hike wouldn’t be required to wear a mask unless they were waiting to go into a business or at a community gathering, Olson said. But she noted that the County Council was slated to debate the order’s language and what it regulates at a special meeting Friday evening, during which the council was expected to pass the mask mandate.
While the public health situation isn’t as dire in Summit County as in the rest of the state, according to the letter, the officials expressed concern at the disease’s rapid spread and the area’s current trends.
The letter indicates that mandating masks is their primary hope for preventing another mass shutdown of area businesses.
“Hospitalizations are on the rise, with Intermountain Health Care (“IHC”) indicating that if current trends continue it will reach ICU capacity in July. This is especially of a concern to the County because IHC is the County’s sole hospital provider, with only 4 ICU beds,” the letter states. “… Our business community and resort economy simply cannot endure a return to Moderate Risk (Orange) without suffering catastrophic economic damage.”
Herbert at a press conference Wednesday indicated that he is in favor of local control and that he’d grant exemptions to his administration’s state health orders if supported by compelling data, spurring the county’s request.
Summit County’s appeal cites scientific studies showing that mask-wearing lowers the risk of spreading the disease and that fewer people died from COVID-19 in countries where people wore masks than in countries where the practice was not widely adopted.
The draft order in the letter exempts certain individuals from wearing masks and identifies situations in which masks would not be required. Children under 2 years old wouldn’t be required to wear a mask, for example, nor would those with medical conditions that would be exacerbated by wearing a mask or those for whom being able to read lips is necessary for communication.
Another exemption is for people who are in public but have to use their mouths, like patrons of bars and restaurants.
“Individuals who are seated at a restaurant or other establishment that offers food or beverage service, while they are eating or drinking (are exempt from wearing a face covering),” the proposed order states.
The county was required to ask for an exemption from the governor to pursue a mask mandate because of legislation passed after the pandemic took hold. In a special session earlier this year, the state Legislature barred local jurisdictions from enacting provisions more stringent than those in statewide public health orders. Summit County was previously awarded an exemption to stay in the more stringent “orange phase” for a week when much of the rest of the state had moved to the yellow, low-risk phase.
Salt Lake County was the first jurisdictions to seek an exemption to mandate masks. Herbert also approved that request.
The Park City Council Thursday had planned to act on a mask-wearing resolution, but declined to do so after the county was given permission to mandate masks.
The Summit County officials, in the letter, say mandating masks reflects the general opinion of the members of the Park City Chamber/Bureau after the business group conducted a recent informal poll.
The letter says that small businesses can be crippled if even a few employees are forced to quarantine, and officials have said that a regression related to COVID-19 this summer might imperil the economically crucial ski season.
“Equally troubling is a negative reputation attached to being labeled a hotspot for infection that could result in Summit County being viewed negatively as a desirable place to visit,” the letter states. “Please help us preserve the health of our residents, our excellent reputation and brand, and to keep our businesses open.”
The letter also notes Summit County’s vulnerability because of the number of visitors it draws, saying that while the current situation isn’t as dire as in other parts of the state, people often travel to the county from areas experiencing a rapid spread of COVID-19.
Alison Kuhlow, executive director of Historic Park City Alliance, which represents businesses in the Park City Main Street core, said members were united in their desire not to have to be the ones to enforce a mask mandate.
Local law enforcement agencies, including the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and the Park City Police Department, would be directed to enforce the order, according to the letter. Violations would be an infraction. Infractions, like driving without a seatbelt, carry a maximum penalty of a $750 fine and no jail time. The letter goes on to say that discretion would be used in prosecuting these cases and that the intent is to protect public health and not to hold people criminally liable.
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A Park City business group said the municipal government moved forward with the works without gathering opinions from the organization.