Legislature’s Covid-19 commission opposes statewide mandatory mask-wearing order

Herbert Mask 01

A Utah legislative coronavirus commission does not want GOP Gov. Gary Herbert to mandate the wearing of face masks in the state, UtahPolicy.com is told.

As reported Wednesday by the Deseret News, Herbert and his own coronavirus task force, separate from the legislative virus commission, are considering issuing such a mandate, as the cases of the deadly virus are growing in Utah.

Herbert’s decision may come as soon as this week, the newspaper reported.

But Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, co-chair of the Legislature’s 10-person commission, told UtahPolicy.com Wednesday morning that last week the commission voted to support an extensive public awareness/marketing campaign advocating the wearing of masks, but stopped short of supporting a mask-wearing governmental mandate.

“I wear a mask,” said Hemmert. “And I fully support others wearing masks. But I believe that government mandating wearing a mask crosses the line” of what a “liberty-loving” government should do.

Justin Harding, Herbert’s chief of staff, told UtahPolicy.com Wednesday: “Productive discussions are ongoing with legislative leadership, leadership of the unified command and other stakeholders, which includes the voices of public health, on the best path forward for the state of Utah. We are looking at a number of measures and tools to help mitigate the spread of the virus, protect our healthcare system from being overwhelmed by Covid and non-Covid cases, and to protect our high-risk population. The money appropriated by the Legislature will be a key element in communicating out our state strategy.”

Hemmert sponsored the bill in an April special session that set up the Legislature’s advisory coronavirus commission — officially called the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission.

And Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, named Hemmert co-chair of that commission, upon which Adams himself also sits.

Here are the members of that commission:

  • Retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, Department of Health, co-chair.
  • Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, co-chair.
  • Senate President Stuart Adams.
  • House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.
  • Brandy Grace, Utah Association of Counties.
  • Dr. Michael Good, University of Utah Health.
  • Brian Dunn, Steward Healthcare.
  • Steve Starks, Larry H. Miller Group of Companies.
  • Derek Miller, Salt Lake Chamber.
  • Mark Bouchard, Salt Lake City real estate executive.

Many in the GOP-controlled Legislature felt that Herbert, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, whom Herbert appointed as the state’s top coronavirus-fighting official, were not coordinating sufficiently with the legislative branch of government, and so took several steps to become players in the state’s coronavirus response.

Hemmert said a June special legislative session specifically allocated $1 million for a marketing plan to get Utahns to help in fighting the virus. And wearing masks is part of that voluntary effort.

But “voluntary” is the key word, said Hemmert.

And Herbert et al. have been pushing hard to get Utahns to wear masks in public and social distancing, without issuing an order to do so.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been working that well — as any kind of anecdotal observations show. And now, almost daily, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s top public health physician, reports the growing number of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations in the state. In fact, Wednesday the state said the number of daily infections hit a new high, over 700.

A number of business outlets, on their own, are now requiring people to wear masks to come into their stores or places of business. And Salt Lake County and Summit County officials have issued a mandatory mask wearing orders.

But Herbert has held off in issuing such an order statewide, or in specific counties (mostly along the Wasatch Front) where the virus cases are growing.

Hemmert said as of Wednesday morning no one from the Herbert administration or the governor’s health department “have reached out to me” about any mandatory mask order.

As reported previously by UtahPolicy.com, top Herbert aides have sent the Legislature’s commission members an email saying that the commission would be consulted “as needed” on the state’s virus-fighting efforts.

In essence, putting the commission on the shelf, as far as the administration is concerned. But the legislative commission is still meeting almost weekly, said Hemmert, and doing its own work. The vote on mask-wearing is such a stand.

“Everyone should be wearing a mask” in public and in social distancing situations, said Hemmert. And the state should have an extensive public service announcement program encouraging that, he added.

“I see this issue akin to vaccines — I get vaccines, my children get vaccines, but government shouldn’t mandate vaccines.” Educate yes, encourage, yes, but not mandate, said Hemmert. “That crosses the line.”