Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday he would not issue a statewide mask mandate and instead challenged Utahns to voluntarily wear masks when in public or participating in activities that do not allow for social distancing.

Herbert made his announcement during a press conference with Utah Department of Health Chief Epidemiologist Angela Dunn after meeting with legislative leadership earlier this week to discuss the idea of a statewide mandate.

Instead of requiring masks statewide, Herbert challenged Utahns to voluntarily wear masks to get the state’s coronavirus infection rate below 500 new daily COVID-19 positive tests by Aug. 1 in preparation for the upcoming school season. Dunn said the state’s seven-day average is currently 585 positive tests per day.

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

Herbert also announced that all students and faculty at K-12 schools will be required to wear masks in all buildings this fall.

“Aug. 1 would really be a good day for us to say ‘let’s see what we can do to change our behavior,’” the governor said, “not because government is compelling us to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Herbert added that a statewide mandate was still on the table and would be considered if case counts didn’t go down in coming weeks.

Both House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, both said on Wednesday that they opposed requiring masks and would prefer Utahns voluntarily wear them when unable to maintain a 6-foot distance.

“The most effective way for us to keep our economy moving, to open schools, play team sports or get back to normal life is to wear a mask when social distancing is not practical,” Wilson said in a written statement. “However, I believe it’s prudent to stop short of issuing a statewide government mandate, because doing so would apply the same policy to our most heavily populated areas as our rural areas and areas with different rates of infection. Local officials are better positioned to make data driven decisions regarding face masks that are tailored to their communities.”

The house speaker added, “In Utah, we prefer to encourage people to do the right thing rather than issuing mandates and demanding compliance.”

“Mandating masks raises questions of enforcement and punishment, said Adams. “As legislators, we are working to strike a balance between policies that protect public health and citizens’ rights. Let us rise to the occasion and do what we can, proudly and willingly. I am asking you to help out by wearing a mask voluntarily.”

The Utah Hospital association wrote a letter to Herbert, Wilson and Adams on Tuesday asking the state officials to “adopt a rule requiring Utahns to wear masks.”

“As Utah has re-opened our economy, we have been pleased to see the resurgence of economic activity and return of many normal activities,” said the letter, which was signed by Utah Hospital Association President and CEO Greg Bell. “Unfortunately, we have also seen a serious increase of infection. That increase is bringing impacts on hospitals and health care professionals which are unsustainable. Although average length of hospital stay and the mortality rate are improving, we are alarmed at the caseload we project in the coming weeks and months.”

Herbert said he has approved mask mandates for Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties and the city of Springdale in Washington County.

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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