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Utah County leaders discuss new restrictions, mask mandate in the wake of spiking COVID-19 cases

(Credit: Kristin Murphy, KSL File)

PROVO – The dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in Utah County has elected officials scrambling to bring those numbers down.  The county commission held an emergency phone meeting with mayors and health officials to talk about the possibility of a mask mandate and a limit on large gatherings.

Friday was another record-setting day for Utah’s new daily COVID-19 cases.  Health officials say there were an unprecedented 1,117 new cases, but no new deaths.  Some elected officials say Utah County makes up roughly 60 percent of those new cases, and they’re very concerned about going back into the “orange” or moderate-risk restriction level.

State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn says, “It’s no surprise that Utah County feels that pressure given the amount of cases they’ve had, recently.”

Dunn was part of the emergency meeting, along with several mayors, the Utah County Health Department and the Utah County Sheriff’s Office.  She says she was impressed with how receptive everyone was to the state’s suggestions and how serious they were about bringing the case numbers down.

“They seem open to all options.  So, it was really about laying all the options on the table so that they can make the best decision for their community,” she says.

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie puts the blame for the surge directly on college students at Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University.  He says the schools, themselves, are aggressively doing what they can to prevent the spread of the virus on-campus, but the students aren’t following public safety guidelines. 

Ivie says, “It has been well-documented that Brigham Young University students are holding parties and not wearing masks and not practicing social distancing.”

(A Utah County Commission meeting in July, filled with people expressing their feelings against a mask mandate in schools. Credit: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Ivie has been promoting masks since the beginning of the outbreak, but even he has doubts about mandating them across the county.  He doesn’t believe they would be able to actually enforce it, and many people in the meeting agreed with that statement.  Plus, he says there’s a strong anti-mask sentiment among a large section of their population.  So, he believes the real trick will be getting people to want to wear them, similar to what health officials are seeing in Salt Lake County.

“The cultural differences in Salt Lake County and Utah County are significant,” Ivie says.

County Sheriff Mike Smith tells KSL’s Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry that violating a health order would technically be a Class B misdemeanor, but, he wouldn’t ask his officers to enforce it.  Smith says officers in other parts of the country have already tried to enforce similar mandates.

“You also saw the communities and the media, itself, come right back on these law enforcement officers and criticize them for doing what they were asked to by the politicians,” Smith says.  “Very, very, very rarely do you see a politician stand up and say, ‘No, that’s what we wanted.’”

Smith says, perhaps, law enforcement should look at this from the opposite viewpoint.  He would support an effort that rewards people who are spotted wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

 “We’re not effective without our community behind us, supporting us and trusting us.  We solve this as a team,” says Smith.

In the meantime, city leaders say they’re going to do what they can to encourage everyone to follow safety guidelines.  Orem Mayor Richard Brunst says he’ll look into new public information campaigns to spread the word.

“I’m going to put a renewed effort into that, asking that every business put a sign out front saying a mask is required,” Brunst says, adding, “We would like to encourage that large gatherings not occur.”

 

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