With low case numbers, why mandate masks? Summit County officials explain their reasoning.
Summit County on Monday had two new confirmed cases of COVID-19. On Sunday, one new case was diagnosed. On Saturday there were two and on Friday, three.
In a county of around 40,000 people, these numbers seem small. Why, then, did county officials decide Friday was the right time to take their most aggressive step in fighting the pandemic since their now-rescinded stay-at-home order in March?
“It was really a preemptive strike,” Health Director Rich Bullough said in an interview. “We’re surrounded by counties that have case numbers that are surging that are far worse than ours. … As we’re looking around us, there’s a significant surge — so what are our options? Data is very clear (mask-wearing) reduces transmission by about 80%. We felt really strongly, time to make that move. Also, on top of that, my observation was, people seemed to think that this was over. Wouldn’t see masks in stores. As much as anything, this was a preemptive reminder we’re still at risk.”
The Summit County Council passed a new joint public health order Friday evening that essentially compels people to wear masks while inside public spaces in the county with limited exceptions. Failure to do so could result in a citation, but officials said punishment is not the intent of the order. It is slated to run through Sept. 1, but officials said they would revisit it frequently to address community concerns.
The order was signed by County Council Chair Doug Clyde, County Manager Tom Fisher and Bullough.
Clyde described the move as one of the county’s last tools to fight the spread of the disease and said if Utah garners a reputation as an unsafe destination for travel, Summit County residents might experience a “dramatic and life-changing” hit to the area’s economy. Officials also touted it as supporting local businesses whose employees are often on the front lines asking visitors to wear masks. That practice is now the law of the land in the county.
Bullough cited several criteria that informed the decision, including hospital utilization rates — there are four intensive-care unit beds in Summit County; a growing percentage of tests that are coming back positive; growth in new cases on a rolling three-day average; an increase in the average number of people an infected person in the county is spreading the disease to; a spike in the number of people that infected persons have come into contact with; and a jump in the number of cases traced back to a visitor to the county, rather than resulting from spread among the community.
The trend in travel-related cases is noteworthy, Bullough said, but the totality of data taken together that indicated things were heading in the wrong direction was what ultimately prompted the mask mandate.
Councilors described the move as the last step before being forced to shut down local businesses if the disease continues to spread.
“If we fail at this attempt, the answer then becomes to close our doors,” Clyde said. “We don’t just say, oh that’s too bad, we’re going to bring in some refrigerated trailers and throw bodies into the back of a truck. We close down. And if we close down, our economy is going to suffer not just a little bit, it’s not going to suffer kind of like your personal liberties, it’s going to suffer straight between the eyes.”
Several county officials addressed the notion of a mask mandate restricting personal liberties including Councilors Glenn Wright, Roger Armstrong and Clyde, as well as County Attorney Margaret Olson.
Wright said wearing a mask is a sign of respect for other community members and called it a small sacrifice to make.
Armstrong said there is a history of governments being empowered to limit personal liberties during public health crises, citing a century-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of governments to vaccinate against smallpox.
He made a case for unity and asked people not to argue over “red and blue issues” that distract from the purpose of protecting public health.
“Now is the time for us to do the small reasonable things that we can do to help try and push this down,” he said.
Olson took a different tack, suggesting that community members think about how they can help each other during unprecedented times rather than focus on perceived infringements on personal liberties.
“Instead of asking, ‘What is my individual right?,’ I would like to start a conversation within the community about civic duty and about coming together as a community and about being a good citizen and about sacrifice,” she said. “… My grandfathers both fought in World War II. They were required to sacrifice for the greater good, and I think we’re living through one of those times, and I think it’s nice if we as a community start asking different questions, start asking what is moral behavior, what is my civic duty, what can I do to be a part of the solution.”
Clyde, a former ski-industry executive who stressed the importance of the ski season to the local economy, said he hoped the mask mandate would help the public perception of Summit County as a safe place to travel.
“Our preference would be that they go home and say, ‘Yeah those guys in Park City, they really understand this stuff. They made us wear a mask, they made us do social distancing,’” he said. “… We want our visitors to know that we understand the virus and we are working very hard to make sure that they don’t get it.”
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