UPDATED: Governor mandates masks for K-12 schools, challenges Utahns to wear masks on their own

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert has announced that masks will be mandated for all students, faculty, staff and visitors to K-12 schools in the state.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask during a news conference at Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 15, 2020 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

He stopped short of mandating masks for the public at large or moving the coronavirus risk level back to orange, challenging Utahns to wear masks and practice social distancing on their own by the beginning of August or face further action that could include a mask mandate and a closing down of some businesses.

“We want to make sure they have a safe environment when they go back to school and the staff and teachers to also be safe,” Herbert said during a press conference Thursday. 

The school mandate applies to all indoor areas of schools as well as school buses, but excludes outdoor areas and activities at schools. 

Beyond schools, the governor said he is not joining 23 other states that are currently mandating masks for the general population or increasing the statewide coronavirus risk level back to orange. However, he said he may have to if Utahns do not voluntarily take steps to wear masks and socially distance.  

“I challenge us to get the average (seven-day) case rate below 500 by Aug. 1. Let’s see what we can do to change our behavior, not because government says we have to, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Herbert said. “If we don’t, we know the ultimate results. We’ll have to make the disappointing decision of rolling back to orange and mandating masks. I say let the people make this decision and take the responsibility. We can conquer this.”

A sign inside the Harmon’s grocery store in St. George asking customers to wear face masks, St. George, Utah, June 26, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Coronavirus tests coming back positive has continued to rise statewide. The current rolling seven-day average statewide is 583.7 cases. There have been 4,086 new infections in the last week, including 1,323 new infections in the last two days. 

“We are a state of 3.2 million people and a lot of people on different points of views,” Herbert said. “The one thing we’ve done well in the past is work together in a spirit of collaboration. That culture is needed now more than ever. It’s not just about us but the people we live with.”

On the average, the number of tests that come back positive should be in the area of 4%. The rolling average over the last seven days in Utah has been 9.9%.

“We’re now at a point in this outbreak where it is more meaningful to look at the seven-day trend,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, who added there has been an especially large jump in the last seven days of those between 15 and 44 years of age. 

While not as sharp an upturn as the state as a whole, Southern Utah has also been seeing a rise in new coronavirus infections this week. 

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through July 7, 2020. Click to enlarge. | Background photo by by
mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News

After new coronavirus infections in Southern Utah were below 40 new cases a day last week, the region has now had four of the last five days above 40 new cases including having its first day with more than 70 new cases Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department The Utah Department of Health said there were 74 new COVID-19 cases in the five-county area, breaking the previous single-day high by seven. 

There were 41 new cases announced on Thursday.

The drive for masks stems from repeated studies that show the effectiveness of mass mask-wearing by citizens toward reducing the rate of coronavirus cases.  Herbert is also allowing local cities and counties to mandate masks on their own, which Springdale did on July 3.

“We’re finding from our science, our heath care providers one of the best ways to reduce the virus is to wear face coverings,” Herbert said. 

Because of the 14-day gestation time of the virus, it will be unclear for at least a week as to whether the mandate in Springdale or the ones in Salt Lake and Summit counties, started on June 27, are having an effect, Dunn said. 

Herbert acknowledges a challenge will still be those who are adamant about not wearing face coverings – especially those who cite political reasons. That has included parents who have told the Washington County School District in letters that they will not send their kids to school if they have to wear masks.

“We need to work better on as far as disagreement,” Herbert said. “One thing we should not disagree on is the desire to protect people’s lives. And also the need to make sure the economy keeps functioning. These are not mutually exclusive ideas. We need to stay safe to stay open.

“I don’t want this to be a divisive issue. Maybe now that we’re past the campaigns we don’t need this to be politicized.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, left, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, listens during a press conference with legislative, community, and business leaders at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 17, 2020 | File photo by Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News/Pool via The Associated Press, St. George News

J. Stuart Adams, president of Utah’s State Senate, said in a statement late Wednesday that Utahns need to wear masks on their own, but still expressed opposition to a mask mandate. 

“The simple act of wearing a mask protects the vulnerable, keeps Utahns working, allows businesses to stay open and prevents our health care systems from being overwhelmed,” Adams said. “Mandating masks raises questions of enforcement and punishment. Let us rise to the occasion and do what we can, proudly and willingly. I am asking you to help out by wearing a mask voluntarily.”

There have been two coronavirus deaths in Southern Utah announced by the Utah Department of Health in the last two days, both residents of Washington County. 

The first, announced Wednesday, was of a man between 65 and 84 years of age at an undisclosed long-term care facility. 

The second, announced Thursday, was of a woman, also between 65 to 84, at Dixie Regional Medical Center.

Chart shows the rise in cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to July 9, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

The statewide death rate has been inching upward this week as there have been 11 COVID-19-related deaths in Utah in the last two days. 

With six deaths per 100,000 Utahns according to the Centers for Disease Control, Utah is now 42nd among U.S. states and territories after being in the bottom four since the beginning of the pandemic.

Reaction to school mandate

While parents are coming to grips with the idea of including masks in their child’s back-to-school shopping list, a representative for teachers in the Washington County School District, said there is actually a sense of relief among educators and staff. 

Amy Barton, president of the Washington County Education Association, said there were concerns among teachers who were uncertain about their safety as the date of students returning to live classrooms for the first time since March was being penciled in for August.

“Teachers are on the front lines. In this case, with class sizes of 20 to 40 students, that is a lot of person-to-person contact. We are taking steps to protect school employees and students in a situation where physical distancing is impossible,” Barton said. “I believe that with the right planning, preparation, attitude, instruction, modeling, and consistency, teachers can make this work in their classroom. I also think that wearing masks is the right thing to do health-wise for the common good of school employees and students.”

Photo illustration. | Photo by Sarah Kilian, Unsplash, St. George News

The mask mandate comes at a time when there is some evidence that it may not be possible for children under the age of puberty to transmit the disease to another child of the same age group. 

According to the Utah Department of Health, only 6% of those who have been infected with COVID-19 in the state have been ages 14 and below. However, the same statistics show a quick jump once a child hits their teen years, with 21% of coronavirus cases being among those 15 to 24. Thus, as far as schools are concerned, any thought that children are less susceptible to the virus might stop at the gates of an intermediate, middle or high school.

One prominent recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that those in Kindergarten to fifth grade are not significant drivers of the pandemic. However, the authors of that study are quick to note how limited it was in scope, involving only dozens of children. 

There are other studies that say that pre-pubescent children can be silent spreaders of the disease, especially in larger households. Like most things with a new virus that has only existed in humans for eight months, there aren’t many things that can be set in stone. 

And there are no studies that say a pre-pubescent child cannot transmit the virus to an adult, and elementary schools will more commonly have adult supervisors in close proximity to children. 

“Just like with the general population, many school employees have underlying conditions such as diabetes, asthma, autoimmune diseases, etc.,” Barton said. “I believe those factors, combined with being in a confined space with students for six-plus hours a day, puts teachers in a uniquely vulnerable position.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19% of teachers in Utah are over age 55, which alone starts to put those teachers into a group at high risk for being hospitalized for the disease. And Barton said it isn’t just the teachers who need protecting. 

“Our bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and some other school employees come into contact with literally dozens to possibly hundreds of students daily,” Barton said. “This is a recipe for disaster if we don’t have some strong mitigating tactics that help protect school employees, students and everyone’s families.”

Updated July 9, 7:30 p.m.: Reaction from teachers representatives added, latest numbers.

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of July 9, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 1,881 (42.4 new infections per day in seven days)

  • Washington County: 1,494 (35.6 per day)
  • Iron County: 344 (5.1 per day)
  • Garfield County: 18 (0.4 per day) 
  • Kane County: 13 (0.9 per day)
  • Beaver County: 12 (0.4 per day) 

Deaths: 15 (0.6 per day)

  • Washington County: 13
  • Iron County: 1
  • Garfield County: 1

Hospitalized: 15  

Tested: 23,339

Recovered: 1,136

Current Utah seven-day average (Goal of less than 500 by Aug. 1 ): 583.7

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