Utah sees virus surge -- but not in county with mask order

SOPHIA EPPOLITO and LINDSAY WHITEHURST

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah is among the many U.S. states battling a surge in coronavirus cases, but officials said Wednesday the Salt Lake City area is bucking the trend after the county issued a mandate a month ago for people to wear masks.

There's no statewide mask order in Republican-led Utah, and face coverings remain contentious, as seen at a recent public meeting that was abruptly ended when dozens of people without masks packed the room.

After GOP Gov. Gary Herbert allowed Democratic leaders in Salt Lake County to impose their own mask rule, the county's share of cases in the state steadily declined despite its denser population.

“Today we’re sharing data that indicates that face coverings and other interventions implemented by Salt Lake County are having a positive impact,” county Mayor Jenny Wilson said. “These actions are saving lives, protecting health and stabilizing the spread of COVID-19 cases.”

Based on data in Salt Lake County, Wilson called on the governor to order a statewide mask requirement.

The number of new cases reported daily in Salt Lake County is nearly down to levels seen in June. However, case numbers in the state as a whole have doubled in the same time frame.

The county used to consistently report 60% of the state’s cases, but now typically sees about 40% of those cases, Wilson said. A third of the state’s 3.2 million residents live in Salt Lake County.

Health experts say masks can prevent the spread of the disease by catching virus-containing respiratory droplets expelled when people exhale or cough. Face coverings are promoted as a key tool in allowing the resumption of economic activity and students’ return to schools.

Critics, however, argue that mask mandates overstep government power.

More than half of U.S. states have implemented some kind of mask requirement. President Donald Trump also offered his strongest endorsement yet of masks on Tuesday. Some states such as Iowa, Ohio and Arizona have mandates in specific cities or counties, but declines such as those seen in Salt Lake County are rare.

Disagreements between Republicans and Democrats involving masks has gone to court in Georgia, but the conversation is more nuanced in Utah. Herbert has urged people to voluntarily wear them and hasn't disputed local mandates in Salt Lake County and a handful of other counties, mostly tourist destinations with national parks and ski resorts.

He' also ordered the use of masks at schools and state-run buildings, and indicated he may reconsider a statewide mandate if case counts remain high in August.

Those steps have brought sharp criticism from people who say requiring face coverings is a violation of personal liberties. A rural county commissioner last month compared Herbert to Adolf Hitler in a social media post after the governor gave approval to two counties to mandate masks.

Herbert told reporters Wednesday that it’s too soon to say whether Salt Lake County’s mask mandate was solely responsible for the decreased case counts, but he again voiced his support for voluntary mask wearing. He said upcoming data will dictate whether he pursues a statewide mandate.

“I’m grateful that I see more people wearing masks now than ever before as I get around the state,” he said. “I think it’s becoming something that’s more normal."

More than 35,000 cases of the virus have been reported in Utah, and over 250 people have died, according to state data. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

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