Mask commission meeting 1

A screenshot of video footage of Wednesday's Utah County Commission meeting, which was canceled due to a lack of social distancing. 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert criticized the approximately 100 Utah County residents who packed into a Utah County Commission meeting Wednesday without wearing masks or maintaining a 6-foot distance to speak against the governor’s decision to require masks in public K-12 schools this fall.

“I think the experts will tell us that’s kind of a foolish action,” Herbert said during a press conference Thursday. “As we get together, and who knows who’s got the COVID-19 virus, and (stand) cheek to jowl, where you have an opportunity to spread it. Some did have masks there but took them off.”

Those in attendance of Wednesday’s commission meeting, which was held in the Utah County Administration building and lasted only a minute due to the lack of social distancing and mask-wearing, were there to support Commissioner Bill Lee’s request for the Utah County Health Department to request that Herbert give the county “compassionate exemption from the one-size-fits-all mask mandate in Utah County’s public schools.”

Herbert announced on July 9 that he wouldn’t implement a statewide mask mandate and instead encouraged Utahns to voluntarily wear them in public places where social distancing is unattainable. Herbert did, however, issue a mask requirement for all students, faculty and staff of public K-12 schools, noting that there would be some flexibility and accommodations.

“At this time, I choose not to make it a mandate,” the governor said on July 9. “I’m going to give the people of Utah the opportunity to show the kind of people … that they are, which I believe we’ve demonstrated in times past.”

When asked about those at the meeting who disregarded his request that Utahns voluntarily wear masks when unable to socially distance, Herbert said that “we sometimes make mistakes, we do foolish things when we ought to be maybe more thoughtful in our actions.”

“People get caught up in almost a mob mentality and the energy of the group, their enthusiasm, their anger, fuels the fire,” said Herbert. “There’s a better way, in fact, to dialogue with leadership. I think you know it was probably very true that the county commission’s got really nothing to say about this issue, on mask-wearing in schools. That’s the state health department, and the local health department has given them the right by statute given to them by the legislature to make those kinds of decisions regarding the health and welfare of the people of Utah.”

Herbert called on residents in Utah County and throughout the state to “have better dialogue and understanding” and to “be moderate in our tone,” but also acknowledged that there are different points of view on requiring masks in schools.

“If we do that, I think we can succeed and certainly move in a more positive direction,” he said. “That’s the plea I’d make to the people that showed up to the (Utah County Commission) meeting last night and to all of Utahns. It’s not just unique to Utah County. This is throughout our state (that people) have that same concern. They may be a minority voice, but they’re a loud voice. And we need to work together to solve the problem.”

There have been 31,845 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Utah since the beginning of the pandemic, including 5,794 cases in Utah County, 2,113 in Davis County and 1,829 in Weber and Morgan counties, which share a health department.

On July 10, University of Utah Health Chief Medical Officer Tom Miller and Intermountain Healthcare Chief Physician Executive Mark Briesacher called on Herbert to issue a statewide mask mandate as the rolling seven-day average of positive cases surges and intensive care unit beds fill up.

Miller spoke at Thursday’s press conference and urged Utahns to wear masks during the state’s surge in coronavirus cases.

“Citizens of Utah, I am pleading with you to put your mask on,” Miller said. “Put it on now, let’s not put it on next week or next month. Let’s do it now.”

“I would hope that people would show regard for those experts in the field of medicine and science which are telling us this is what will help us to, in fact, control the virus,” said Herbert. “I hope we can do it and comply because it’s the right thing to do, show respect for our fellow man, our neighbors, love for people we know or don’t know, our own families, and not have to be compelled to do it.”

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.

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