As Utah eases its restrictions on social gatherings and business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah County residents are easing up on their commitment to following health and safety recommendations from state officials.

Data gathered by the Daily Herald shows that only about a third of people recently shopping in Utah County are wearing masks or otherwise covering their faces while shopping.

Of the 746 people that the Daily Herald observed shopping on Friday morning and afternoon in three Utah County cities — Provo, American Fork and Springville — only 229 were seen wearing a mask, bandanna or other face-covering material. That is 30.7% of the total shoppers observed.

At the same time, 517 Utah County shoppers, or 69.3%, were observed not wearing masks or otherwise making efforts to cover their faces.

When the stats are broken down by gender, the divide between mask wearers and non-mask wearers observed on Friday was even greater for men.

Of the 378 men who were observed shopping in Utah County on Friday, 91 of them — 24.1% — were observed wearing masks, while 287 of the men — 75.9% — were not wearing masks.

Out of 368 total women who were seen shopping, 138 of them — 37.5% — were observed wearing masks. Meanwhile, 230 women — 62.5% — were not wearing masks or another face-covering material.

The Daily Herald made a note to only observe customers and not employees since employers have their own guidelines for employees to follow.

The number of people wearing masks while shopping appears generally consistent throughout different parts of Utah County.

Exactly 30% of the 180 total people observed shopping at Walmart Supercenter in American Fork were seen wearing masks. Meanwhile, 31.2% of the 266 shoppers who went to Smith’s Drug and Food in Provo wore masks. And 30.6% of the 300 people who shopped at Walmart Supercenter in Springville did the same.

Recommendations

Even though the majority of the state, including all of Utah County, was reclassified as “yellow,” or “low risk,” on May 16, Gov. Gary Herbert has advised that residents continue to wear masks in public areas where interaction with others may occur.

“Studies show that wearing masks — even homemade ones — dramatically decreases the spread of COVID-19,” Herbert tweeted on May 14. “Wear a mask when around others to prevent spreading any germs you might have.”

Guidelines developed by the Utah Department of Health and the Governor’s Office of Management for the general public during the “yellow” phase of the pandemic state that face covers should be worn “in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

These face-covering recommendations are no different than the recommendations given during the red “high risk” and orange “moderate risk” phases of the pandemic.

Why (or why not) wear a mask?

Utah County shoppers gave a variety of responses when asked why they chose to — or to not — wear a mask when they went shopping on Friday.

Payson resident Desiree Ross, who went shopping in Springville, didn’t wear a mask Friday despite having a few in her purse.

“It’s not required,” Ross said when asked why she didn’t wear a mask, adding that she doesn’t wear masks while shopping “unless they literally have a sign that says you have to wear it.”

“Not unless the store won’t let you in without one,” Ross said.

Another Payson resident, Karen Harper, said she felt like she and her family members would be better off without the masks, adding that she believes she, her husband and 3-year-old daughter contracted the virus in January while living in Cedar City and have all since recovered.

“I’ve noticed some people that wear masks ... are short of breath and they’re breathing carbon dioxide,” Harper said. “And (I’ve heard) that it can weaken your immune system. So for us, I feel like our immune systems will stay stronger if we’re not wearing it.”

Harper added that “if we do get it, we’re pretty healthy and we’re pretty active, so I feel like we’ll recover fine.”

Ann Irvin, of Santaquin, said she wears a mask whenever she goes out in public because she is over 60 and has a compromised immune system. Irvin took issue with people opting out of wearing masks in public and said their decision to do so puts her in danger.

“It’s like someone’s being flippant with my life,” she said.

83-year-old Bonnie Amberlin, of Salem, who wore a mask during what she said was just the second time she’s been shopping during the pandemic, said she had no problem with others choosing to not wear masks.

“I have no opinion,” Amberlin said. “That’s their choice.”

Payson business owner Pedro Sandoval was leaving the Walmart Supercenter in American Fork with his son early Friday morning with no mask in sight.

“It’s uncomfortable for me,” he said, laughing nervously. “Sometimes I wear it, but it’s really tiring to hold on my ears. Another thing is I’m not out very much, only sometimes.”

Sandoval said he does all of his shopping early in the morning, but not necessarily to avoid larger crowds.

American Fork resident Ethan H., who asked to only be identified by his first name and last initial, said he’s not too sure why he doesn’t wear a mask when shopping, but feels safe regardless.

Two women wearing masks left the American Fork Walmart with groceries in hand, saying they opt to wear a mask for the safety and health of the general public. One woman, Amber, who only gave her first name, said that, as a nurse, she knows just how important wearing a mask in public can be.

A younger couple, Deagan Merrihew and MacKenzie Nielsen, said they feel maintaining the social distancing guideline of 6 feet or more is just as protective as wearing masks.

There have been a total of 1,651 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Utah County as of Friday, according to the Utah Department of Health, which has resulted in 93 hospitalizations and 13 deaths.

Methodology

The Daily Herald observed 746 shoppers at three different locations in Utah County on Friday, including 180 people who shopped at Walmart Supercenter in American Fork between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., 300 people who shopped at Walmart Supercenter in Springville between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., and 266 people who shopped at Smith’s Food and Drug in Provo between noon and 1 p.m.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

McKenna Park covers nights and weekends at the Daily Herald, along with special projects and visual editing. She can be reached at mpark@heralextra.com.

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