Gov. Gary Hebert announced Wednesday the state would require masks in Utah’s K-12 schools, but he declined to make face-coverings mandatory for the rest of the state.
Herbert said the mask mandate would apply to students, teachers, staff and visitors, with some exceptions. But, the goal is to get the schools open in the fall.
“We’re going to use an abundance of caution and be proactive in saying we want to make sure our schools are a safe environment for our children,” he said. “Students missed too much class time last year. It’s been a hardship for many families and individuals. We certainly want to do whatever is necessary for them to have a safe environment to go back to school.”
Herbert said the state’s 41 school districts would have some flexibility to implement their plans for mask-wearing.
However, Herbert would not go so far as to extend the face-covering requirement to all Utah residents, even though he said he has the constitutional authority to do so. Instead, he appealed to common sense to encourage Utahns to wear masks in public.
“I’m going to give the people of Utah an opportunity to show the kind of character which they’ve demonstrated. It’s time for us to say that, for the good of the whole, we’re going to comply voluntarily to wear face coverings,” said Herbert.
Likely contributing to Herbert’s decision is opposition to compulsory face-coverings from House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. Both Wilson and Adams released separate statements opposing a statewide mask mandate on Wednesday. The legislature’s Covid-19 commission also made their opposition to a mask requirement known to Herbert last week.
The number of Covid-19 cases in Utah has been rising in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Utah set a single-day record of 722 cases. State health officials said a better snapshot of how the virus is spending is a look at the seven-day rolling average of cases, which was at 576 on Thursday.
Herbert warned that if the rolling average were to surge to 800 per day, that would be the point that the state would have to start rolling back the efforts to reopen the economy.
“We certainly would not be wise to be floating that close to the edge of the cliff. If we have a surge, we would not be able to deal with it. That impacts the economy and puts us back into needing restrictions,” he said.
Instead, Herbert challenged Utahns to take steps to bring that rolling average to below 500 per day by the beginning of August.
“If we can’t do that, if we don’t do that, it may trigger some more aggressive action by the government,” said Herbert.
Utah moved from the “red” restriction level to “orange” on May 1 when the state had just 156 cases of the virus.
Herbert bizarrely suggested branding was the reason residents are taking a more lackadaisical attitude toward wearing masks in public, blaming the way they labeled the state’s various risk levels as sending the wrong message to Utahns. For instance, the “yellow” risk level that applies to most of the state right now is referred to as “moderate risk.”
“I think that’s given us probably misinformation for what we ought to be doing and conducting our lives. What I think people heard is things are almost back to normal and we don’t have to take the same precautions,” he said.