SPRINGDALE, Washington County — The way masks and face coverings are viewed at national parks has changed.
All U.S. national parks are now enforcing masks following an executive order signed by President Joe Biden that recently went into effect. At Zion National Park, Utah's most-visited park, masks shifted from a guideline that masks should be worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to law.
Zion National Park chief law enforcement ranger Daniel Fagergren explained Monday that the order codifies the policy and allows rangers to enforce the use of masks.
"Before, we could say, 'Please put on a mask.' If someone says, 'I don't want to,' we couldn't force it or enforce it," he said. "But now, with it being a law, we can take enforcement action."
Biden signed a pair of executive orders during his first two days on the job after he was sworn in on Jan. 20 that mandated mask usage in areas the federal government could enforce it. One order mandated masks within all forms of public transportation and interstate travel and the other mandated masks in federal buildings and on federal lands. The latter requires physical distancing and other preventive measures issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both went into effect last week.
"Wearing a mask around others, physical distancing and washing your hands are the simplest and most effective public health measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19," said Capt. Sara Newman, the director of the National Park Service Office of Public Health, a statement last week. "Getting outside and enjoying our public lands is essential to improving mental and physical health, but we all need to work together to recreate responsibly."
The park service order states visitors are required to wear face coverings inside all National Park Service buildings and facilities. Masks are also required outdoors when physical distancing is impossible to maintain. That includes narrow or busy trails, overlooks and historic sites. The agency was also instructed to limit capacity on one-way trails and issue temporary closures if needed.
Prior to the order, many parks encouraged mask usage. Zion National Park officials strongly encouraged masks based on CDC guidelines, but it wasn't enforced on park grounds. There was a mask mandate on land just outside of the park's entrance in Springdale, which was one of the first Utah communities to issue a mandate.
The order — as it applies to Zion — means masks are required in all buildings, plazas outside of buildings, lines for the park's shuttle service, while riding a shuttle bus, and trailheads/trails/overlooks where physical distancing is impossible.
Exactly how the order is enforced is still up to park superintendents. While it could result in a citation, Fagergren said he instructed Zion National Park rangers to "exercise extreme patience" and focus more on the education of why masks are important for stopping the spread of the coronavirus rather than cite every violator they see.
"It might be a conversation; it might be pulling them aside; it might be visiting them later, or it could — if they really insist on pushing the issues — it could be a citation," he said. "Those are all tools that we anticipate having to use for those who refuse to comply."
Fagergren said park rangers haven't run into any issues with the new mandate in its first week. He added that he believed most people "respect other people's health" and follow the previous mask guidelines.
When asked if park rangers could remove violators from the park, he responded that he was "certainly hopeful" there wouldn't be a situation where that level of seriousness was needed. One approach rangers were asked to consider was to ask violators to leave a certain area where there are mask requirements if they refuse to comply.
There is no immediate date given for when the mandates will be lifted. Individuals are encouraged to visit park websites or social media accounts to view specific requirements or possible closures at every park in Utah, and elsewhere in the U.S.
Zion National Park plans to have its direct law language posted online in the coming weeks.
"It's harping on the message that we're trying to protect the life, health (and) safety of people visiting our national parks," Fagergren said. "That includes the staff, the visitors, the contractors, the partners, the local community … it's really relying on the best available data and science to protect those different groups and organizations the best we can until that vaccine takes hold."