PROVO — A day after the Utah County Commission passed a county-wide face-covering measure, the only county commissioner whose name was absent from the health order said he chose not to support it because he felt the measure would not make a difference.
"I fundamentally don’t believe in putting up paper laws that don’t have any effect at all, and that’s what this is," said Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee, during an appearance on KSL NewsRadio’s Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry Wednesday afternoon.
The county’s two other commissioners, Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie, as well as Utah County Health Department director Ralph Clegg, issued a public health order Tuesday evening to "emphasize the importance of face coverings, each individual within Utah County must wear a face-covering in public areas, including any indoor or outdoor space open to the public, where consistent physical distancing of at least 6 feet from any other individual who does not dwell in the same household is not possible, reasonable or prudent."
The measure went into effect immediately and was set to expire at just before midnight on Oct. 20. It was signed hours after Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn pointed out that 42% of the state’s cases the previous week came from Utah County, despite the county only having about 20% of the state’s population. Utah leaders also announced Tuesday they would move Provo and Orem back to orange on the state’s color-coded COVID-19 restriction map.
Utah County reported 16,486 total COVID-19 cases from March through Wednesday. Of those, 5,406 cases — or nearly one-third of all the county's cases — were reported since the start of September.
"It takes all of us doing our part to get through this — hopefully resulting in a return to normalcy as soon as possible," the commission wrote in a statement. "This Public Health Order is just one small part of a more comprehensive plan which will include additional public education, coordination with our cities, businesses, educational institutions, and further guidance from federal, state and local health experts."
Face coverings are recommended by health experts in the fight to slow down COVID-19 spread because researchers say the coronavirus is spread primarily from droplets, which properly worn masks can help contain.
Utah County commissioners had discussed mask mandates at local schools after Gov. Gary Herbert ordered that masks be worn at schools this year. Lee was vocal against it and tried to make Utah County exempt from the order in July. A commission meeting to discuss the measure was canceled on July 15 after a group of anti-mask protesters flooded the commission's chambers and officials determined they were not following required health protocols for the meeting.
Now, months later, Lee said he does wear a mask while outside his home to "slow down" the virus but remains critical of mandates and how effective they will be, especially without enforcement. His remarks on the radio program Wednesday also came after Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said he would not enforce any mask measure.
"This is a mandate that’s not a mandate. That’s kind of how it’s worded, and I think that kind of stuff is ridiculous," Lee said. "There’s not really going to be any penalty to it. It’ll be in there in a certain way but it’s not going to be enforced. Therefore, this is political virtue signaling and grandstanding. It has nothing to do with trying to move the needle and get something done in Utah County."
When asked if he would change his opinion had Smith said he’d enforce the mask mandate, Lee said he would not; rather, he said he believes it’s more effective for ecclesiastic and community leaders to encourage mask use than a law would.
Regardless, Utah County now joins Salt Lake, Summit and Grand as counties in the state with mandates. Provo already had a mandate that went into place after the cases began to rise; Logan and Springdale also have mandates in place. Weeks after theirs was put in place, Salt Lake County leaders lauded mask usage for their area’s stabilization in COVID-19 cases.
The governor and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson were among officials who applauded the Utah County Commission and health department after the order was issued.
"This is a wise decision by members of the Utah County Commission," Herbert tweeted Tuesday night. "A countywide mask requirement will help slow the spread of COVID-19 in hotspots across Utah County. We encourage all to wear masks — remember, my mask protects you and yours protects me."
Contributing: Lee Lonsberry, KSL NewsRadio