After nearly two hours of public comment from residents opposed to the countywide mask mandate, the Utah County Commission voted 2-1 on Wednesday to ratify the mandate that was issued last week by the Utah County Health Department.

In the late evening of Sept. 22, Utah County Health Department Executive Director Ralph Clegg and Utah County Commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie signed a public health order requiring that “each individual within Utah County must wear a face covering in public areas, including any indoor and outdoor space open to the public, where consistent physical distancing of at least 6 feet from any other individual who does not dwell in the same household is not possible, reasonable or prudent.”

The order includes a number of exemptions, including for young children, and individuals with medical conditions that prevent the wearing of a face covering.

“As the worldwide pandemic continues to evolve, we recognize the extraordinary and difficult efforts of the many individuals and businesses in our communities who implement and enforce this Order,” the order said. “The purpose of this Order is to promote and protect individuals’ health and not to impose criminal penalties.”

Though the order had support from two of the three commissioners, it never went before the county commission for a vote.

Commissioner Bill Lee, who has consistently been opposed to a county mask mandate and voted against ratifying it, raised issue on Wednesday with the way the order was implemented.

“I think this is very detrimental to our ratification process,” Lee said. “It feels like it was a rammed-through process. And it does not feel like it was one in which we have dialogue and conversation.

“For a member of this body to find out about it on a news feed the next morning is unbelievable,” Lee added.

The countywide mask mandate was issued after Gov. Gary Herbert pushed Provo and Orem back to “orange” restriction levels following a surge of positive COVID-19 cases in those two cities and throughout the county.

Ainge said he and Lee had agreed on Sept. 21 to cancel last week’s meeting in anticipation of state officials implementing stricter guidelines on Utah County and defended the process through which the mandate was implemented.

“When the governor moved Provo and Orem back to the orange phase and indicated that really our entire county could be moving back to the orange phase if we didn’t act together ... and asked for a mask requirement as soon as possible … I was willing to follow that direction and guidance from medical experts,” Ainge said. “And timing was of the essence, and so we went ahead and issued this order together with our local health director Ralph Clegg.”

Ainge added that “there’s been lots of discussion” between officials and the public regarding masks in recent weeks and months, both in public meetings and through email and phone conversations.

Dave Shawcroft, division chief of the Utah County Attorney’s Office Civil Division, explained that ratification process is “not the preferred method, and we do it rarely, but it’s (used in) a situation that requires immediate action, and then after it’s done (the order) is immediately then put on the next commission meeting (agenda) so that it can be ratified and made effective.”

Lee said he was left out of conversations about the ratification process and questioned why officials would rush the health order through rather than calling an emergency commission meeting.

“I fully intend on working with the civil division to put some policy in place (to change the process),” Lee said.

A few Utah County residents attended Wednesday’s commission meeting in person to protest the countywide mask mandate issued by the Utah County Health Department on Sept. 22,. A handful of others sat in an overflow room in the Utah County Health and Justice Building or watched an online stream of the meeting.

Mary Ann Nielsen, a Provo resident and member of Utahns of Medical Freedom who is leading a citizen referendum in opposition to the Provo Municipal Council’s mask mandate, said she was worried about the precedent set by the public health order.

“I’m concerned that this avenue that’s been provided for the government to pass orders and laws could very quickly turn into other things that are also very intrusive on our rights as citizens, such as a vaccine mandate,” said Nielsen.

Nielsen recently filed a referendum against the county mask mandate. According to Utah County Elections Director Rozan Mitchell, the order is not subject to referendum since it was passed by the county health department, not the county commission.

“Only an ordinance voted on and passed by the legislative body is referable,” Mitchell said on Friday.

Nielsen said she submitted the referendum “in case there’s some way that we can still get that to go through.”

The Utah Department of Health reported 906 new coronavirus cases statewide on Wednesday, as well as 203 hospitalizations and two deaths.

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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