The Grand County Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday, June 30 to request Utah Gov. Gary Herbert allow Grand County to require that people wear masks in certain contexts in the county.
What specifically such an order would entail is currently undecided since the governor must first provide the county leeway to make such a mandate. The governor last week allowed Salt Lake and Summit counties to pass their own mask mandates, and such a decision could be made for Grand by the end of the week.
If Grand’s mandate is similar to those of other Utah counties that already have mask requirements, it would mean that people would have to wear masks inside local businesses and when attending community events with exceptions for particularly young people, restaurant-goers once they are seated and in other, specific situations.
Grand County residents who reached out to the council in advance of the Tuesday discussion said overwhelmingly that they wanted such a mandate. According to Mary McGann, chair of the council, the county received 47 comments in favor of a mandate and 17 against.
McGann, who proposed the mandate to the council and advocated for its passage, said the mandate would help not only save lives but enable the local economy to continue reopening without needing to close back down.
“Our economy is fragile,” McGann said. “We cannot afford a huge increase of cases in our county. I do not want to take a step backwards like Florida and Texas have had to do. The best thing we can do for our economy is to do all we can to slow the spread. Wearing face masks is a proven, effective way to slow down the spread of the virus.”
Council Member Curtis Wells, who voted against the mandate, expressed concern that masks might reduce oxygen levels for wearers.
“At this point, I don’t think it’s a matter of not taking COVID seriously if you’re not in favor of mandatory masks because there’s a lot there in terms of debating the rationale and the benefit there, so I’m not personally comfortable to support that mandate at this point,” Wells said.
Reporting from multiple reputable sources indicates that tight-fitting masks such as N95 respirators can pose a risk to people with preexisting respiratory illnesses, but, the report concludes, “people wearing cloth or surgical masks are in little to no danger of breathing in unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide.”
Expert analysis from healthcare groups including Hartford HealthCare and Meredith Health Group supports the conclusion that cloth masks are generally safe while respirators should be reserved for healthcare workers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cloth masks for the public with the exception of children under the age of 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, and anyone who would not be able to remove their face covering unassisted.
Council Member Rory Paxman, who joined Wells to vote against the face coverings, said that a mask mandate would cause problems for his and other businesses. He also expressed skepticism that the mandate could be enforced and preferred that the county simply ask people to stay home if they are sick.
One reason the CDC cites for its mask recommendation is that masks can reduce the spread of the coronavirus by people who might not know they are sick.
“COVID-19 can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected,” the CDC’s website reads. “That’s why it’s important for everyone to wear cloth face coverings in public settings and practice social distancing (staying at least six feet away from other people).”
Anticipating concern about enforcing a mask mandate, McGann opened the discussion about the proposed mandate by likening it to seatbelt laws and how difficult it is to enforce those laws. She said she anticipated a mask mandate would increase mask usage locally, even if it proves difficult to enforce.
“Simply passing an ordinance requiring masks will result in more people wearing masks,” McGann said. “It will also make it easier for businesses to ask patrons to wear masks; they can say it is the law.”
Council members Evan Clapper, Greg Halliday and Gabriel Woytek all expressed emphatic support of a mask mandate. Halliday shared an anecdote in which he said family members of his had been exposed to a person with COVID-19 but did not contract it because, he said, they wore masks.
Woytek praised the mandate as a “proactive action” that the county could take as, for example, the school district weighs its plan for teaching amid a pandemic next school year. He also said a mask mandate would protect workers and visitors coming to Moab as the weather cools and tourism may peak again in the fall.
Clapper said he supported the local economy as a whole “staying open” and that requiring masks indoors would ensure the county could continue doing business.
Council Vice Chair Jaylyn Hawks said at the beginning of the discussion that she was “torn” on the idea but ultimately voted for it. She cited modeling that suggests mask usage could prevent up to 100 deaths in Utah through the fall and said that the modeler, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, has proven prophetic in its projections previously of death and case rates amid the pandemic.
Herbert issued an executive order this week ordering masks for all who enter state facilities. Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also this week encouraged people to wear a mask, saying there was no stigma attached to doing so.