Wednesday’s Utah County Commission meeting lasted just over a minute as commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie voted to postpone the meeting, which was packed with about a hundred Utah County residents, nearly none of whom were wearing masks or maintaining a 6-foot distance.
The commission was scheduled to vote on a proposal by Commissioner Bill Lee to ask the Utah County Health Department to call on Gov. Gary Herbert to 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 students, teachers and faculty in public K-12 schools would be required to wear masks in buildings and on buses.
“This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing,” Ainge said at the beginning of Wednesday’s public meeting, which was held in the Utah County Administration Building. “We are supposed to be physically distancing, wearing masks,” he continued before being drowned out by boos and screams.
Nearly everyone at Wednesday’s meeting gathered a half-hour earlier outside the Historic Utah County Courthouse for an event organized by Lee to discuss his proposal to ask Herbert to grant some exemptions to the statewide mandate for public schools.
“Some people have said this is a rally,” Lee told attendees. “I never figured this was a rally. This was more of an informational opportunity. So that’s what this is, an information opportunity. I was coming to give you information on the process that we have with the commission.”
“Consider it a rally,” one man shouted, a comment that was met with cheers and applause.
Lee explained that the commission would vote on whether to send a letter to Utah County Health Department Executive Director Ralph Clegg requesting that he ask the state “to provide backing to Utah County’s school districts by expressing full support for the implementation plans that each of those school districts will be sending to the state,” noting that “the Utah County Commission has received an overwhelming amount of correspondence from parents concerned about the state’s recent mandate requiring everyone who enters a public K-12 school to wear a mask at all times.”
“We want to give local school districts the tools to enact regulations that make the most sense for the children and teachers in the classroom to have a positive learning environment during these difficult times,” the letter said. “In short, we are looking for a balanced approach to the K-12 mask mandate.”
The letter, which the commissioners never voted on since the meeting was postponed, emphasized that it “is not directing you (Clegg) to request a full exemption from wearing masks in schools.”
“We support the continued emphasis on encouraging public health protocols that are shown to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including but not limited to practicing good hygiene and utilizing physical distancing where possible,” the letter said. “We simply want to ensure that the voices of the parents and school leaders in our community are being heard.”
In a statement Tuesday, Ainge said he opposed Lee’s request for mask exemptions and that he had spoken with Herbert and the Alpine School District and was “supportive of their current plans for re-opening, which includes areas of flexibility, adaptation and exceptions where appropriate.”
“As our hospital utilization and case counts climb, this is not the time for a County Commissioner to encourage large, unmasked gatherings or to publicly reject the guidelines we are receiving from the medical community,” said Ainge. “Instead, let’s all recommit to following these recommendations and mask up.”
Ainge left the commission chambers once the meeting was called, but Lee and Ivie stayed and listened to public comment from dozens of Utah County residents, including parents and teachers, who strongly opposed the public school mask mandate.
Carly Lisonbee accused Ainge and others of “wanting to override a parent’s decision over what they think is best for their child.”
“I think you’re forgetting we live in America,” Lisonbee said. “And we the people decide. You work for we the people, not the other way around.”
Penny Roberts, a second grade teacher at Lincoln Academy in Pleasant Grove, said masks would make it more difficult for teachers to determine which students are being abused at home since teachers wouldn’t be able to see their students’ faces.
“Oftentimes, I’m not able to talk to them and find out what’s going on in their lives (without seeing their faces),” Roberts said. “We would be taking these already vulnerable children and throwing them in an environment where they need to stay 6 feet away from their friends and teachers … (and where) their faces are covered and they’re smothered and they’re not allowed to breathe freely.”
Bayley Goldsberry, who will start as a sophomore teacher at Maple Mountain High School in the fall, said she was “deeply troubled that parents, citizens and state leaders here in Utah … would go to such lengths to put Utah County students, teachers, administrators and their families in danger of the coronavirus” by opposing the mask mandate.
“As I am prepared to begin my very first year of teaching in a public high school, I am experiencing fear and anxiety about many things,” Goldsberry said. “Whether or not I will contract a potentially deadly virus in my classroom, a space that should be a safe space for me and my students, should not be one of those fears.”
The proposal from Lee came a week after medical officials told the commission that COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Utah County were on the rise and that masks were a sure way to slow spread.
“We have good data and scientific literature to show that there’s reduced transmission and reduced potential chance of getting infection when wearing masks,” said Edward Stenhjem, an infectious disease physician with Intermountain Healthcare. “This isn’t open for debate in the medical literature. Masks prevent infection.”