SPANISH FORK — As leaders across Utah County struggle with how to respond to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the sheriff is weighing in, calling a mask mandate the wrong approach.
“This is a health issue, a community issue, and should be addressed as such,” Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said. “It should not be criminalized.”
From the start of the pandemic, local and state leaders have wrestled with the best approach to COVID-19. Governor Gary Herbert has mandated masks in state buildings and public schools, but over the last few months he has largely left any further action in the hands of local leaders.
“The federal government has given Utah hundreds of millions of dollars to address this issue. Utah County received over $100 million of that,” Sheriff Smith said. “Still, the best we can do with the resources and options that money could provide is dump the problem on the police by criminalizing it.”
Utah County has followed the state’s guidelines, so far, but the conversation changed after a recent spike in positive cases showed the county was responsible for the largest number of cases.
County Commissioner Tanner Ainge has made it clear he’s ready for tighter guidelines, including a mask mandate. In a statement posted to Twitter, he said he had met with city and county leaders, and heard concerns from some mayors and law enforcement departments.
This is a health issue, a community issue, and should be addressed as such.
–Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith
Among those opposed to a mask mandate is Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi. She vetoed a city mandate in August, citing concerns over enforcement among other things. Her police chief echoed those concerns. The city council ultimately voted to override her veto and enact a mask mandate days before the start of class at Brigham Young University.
Mayor Kaufusi has said she supports a campaign to encourage and educate residents and students on mask wearing.
Sheriff Smith pointed to the calls his office received at the start of the pandemic, when there were restrictions on gatherings.
“We had citizens calling the police on fellow citizens for holding family gatherings in public places as well as private property. We had incidents of public disorder between citizens due to the order,” Smith said. “A mask mandate will generate the same responses.”
He said there were other options than to have deputies enforce a mask mandate.
“I find it interesting that the nation is demanding police reform, yet every time there is any crisis the response is, pass a law and let the police worry about it,” Smith said. “Then, the only resource provided to the police is arrest or citation. I believe we can do better than that.”
In Smith’s view, “The real mandate should be to our elected officials to address the specific problem in the specific areas that are effected with a community based approach that promotes buy-in and acceptance from the community.”