SALT LAKE CITY – With primary balloting just a day away, the question of whether Utahns should be ordered to wear face-masks in public is a political hot potato that nobody wants to touch.
In recent statements, Gov. Gary Herbert has said that he’s a firm believer in local authority in such matters and has declined to second-guess the judgment of mayors, county officials and public health district directors on the issue of mandating masks in public.
But state law says that local officials cannot impose coronavirus guidelines more strict than those announced by the Utah COVID-19 Task Force without the governor’s permission.
That left Herbert in the awkward position late last week of denying a request by State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn to mandate wearing masks statewide, while granting permission to local officials in Salt Lake and Summit counties to oblige their residents to don masks whenever they are out in public.
The problem, according to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is that everything about Utah’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been politicized in the run-up to this week’s primary.
Cox is certainly in a position to know that better than anyone. As chair of the state COVID-19 task force and a candidate to replace Herbert as governor, Cox is firmly in the cross-hairs of criticism from three rival GOP gubernatorial candidates.
Cox urged all Utahns to voluntarily wear masks in a series of obviously frustrated tweets last week, then followed up with more measured statements to the press.
“(Mask wearing) shouldn’t have to be mandatory and we should all be willing to do it anyway,” the lieutenant governor explained. “But the governor and I are big believers in local control. We always have been. I’m a former mayor and a former county commissioner.”
Leaving the hot button issue of mask-wearing up to local officials also serves to somewhat protect Cox from attack by his political rivals: former governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., former Utah House speaker Greg Hughes and former state GOP chair Thomas Wright.
Hughes has been the most vocal of those critics, accusing both Herbert and Cox of trampling on citizens’ constitutional rights during their response to the ongoing pandemic.
Hughes led a small demonstration outside the state Capitol building on June 25 to protest the possibility of increased coronavirus restrictions. That gathering was apparently triggered by the imposition of the mandatory face-mask order in Salt Lake County and Hughes warned the protesters that additional restrictions might be coming as soon as the primary voting is over.
“If Cox and Herbert are willing to cede their leadership (to local officials) and sacrifice our personal liberties just one week before the election, imagine what they’ll do on July 1,” Hughes said.
When political considerations are ignored, the lieutenant governor’s common sense position on mask-wearing is supported by the state’s top epidemiologist. Dr. Dunn recently quoted research that suggests that wearing face-masks is “80 percent effective” in slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. Dunn is strongly in favor of anything that might reverse Utah’s recent spike in coronavirus cases. On June 28, state officials announced a seven-day rolling average of 519 new positive cases in the state, up from a daily average of 450 a week ago.
On June 19, Dr. Dunn penned a controversial memo to Herbert urging that Utah be returned to an Orange/Moderate threat level for coronavirus infection unless the state’s daily rate of new positive COVID-19 cases dropped to 200 or less by July 1.
Since then, the state’s count of new COVID-19 cases has continued to climb on a daily basis.