PROVO — Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee is seeking what he calls a “compassionate exemption” to the mask mandates for K-12 students in Utah County from Gov. Gary Herbert.
Unbeknownst to the other commission members, Lee added an agenda item to Wednesday’s commission meeting asking the three commissioners to vote on a letter directing Ralph Clegg, director of the Utah County Health Department, to ask Herbert for an exemption to the statewide mask mandate for schools.
Lee also encouraged residents concerned about mandating masks in schools to attend Wednesday’s meeting and said he will address an assembly of residents at 2:30 p.m., just before the commission meets, at the Utah County Historic Courthouse.
He said the rally is intended to educate residents about the county’s process on commission meetings and they will be asked to be respectful and not flood the area. But Lee added that he won’t be turning anyone away for not wearing a mask.
Lee said the “compassionate exemption” is meant to address the needs of individual students and situations outside of what has been mandated by the governor.
He said he’s waiting to see what exemptions the Alpine School District might request before finalizing the letter.
“The letter that we will be voting on may be as simple as, ‘We support the school district’s proposals for compassionate exemptions in Utah County,’” Lee said.
Tanner Ainge, chairman of the Utah County Commission, takes issue with Lee’s decision.
“I will not support such action. I’ve spoken with Gov. Herbert and with Alpine School District, and I’m supportive of their current plans for reopening, which include areas of flexibility, adaptation and exceptions where appropriate,” Ainge told the Deseret News Tuesday. “I understand people are concerned about particular circumstances, particular students, young students (and) students with disabilities. I think so is Gov. Herbert and so is the school district, and they are already building those adaptations into the plan.”
Last week, Herbert mandated that K-12 schools require masks for students returning in the fall with a few exemptions for those who have a medical reason not to wear a mask. He made the decision after seeing sharp increases in the number of COVID-19 cases each day and as hospitals inch closer to capacity.
The governor’s office said Tuesday that Herbert has no plans to exempt any county or school district from this safety protocol, although there will be some exemptions allowed for special education students and for those with sensory disabilities.
Ainge said now “is not the time for a county commissioner to be encouraging large, unmasked gatherings” because hospitalizations and viral case counts are continuing to climb in the county.
He issued a public statement condemning Lee’s actions and encouraged Utahns to “recommit” to following public health recommendations to combat the novel coronavirus.
Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie said he has no authority over schools and the decisions they make regarding their students and staff.
“I have one thought on it, and I think the school board as duly elected officials should discuss this matter. It’s not our job,” Ivie said. “I have no idea why it’s on our agenda because it’s not our issue.”
He echoed Ainge, saying he doesn’t think Lee’s letter proposal is a good idea because case numbers have been growing exponentially the past few weeks.
Ivie hopes that Utahns will listen to their faith leaders as well as local authorities and wear a mask to avoid another shutdown.
The disagreement among the commissioners is reflective of the community they represent.
Chad Pritchard, a Provo businessman and father, said he sees Lee’s decision to ask for special exemptions as politically motivated.
“Lee is giving us platitudes,” Pritchard said. “(He) knows full well that Herbert won’t give him an exemption.”
Pritchard, owner of Fat Daddy’s Pizza in Provo, sees masks as a way to help get his children back into school and as a way to keep businesses open.
Parents are now faced with tough decisions about sending their children back to school or keeping them home for distance learning.