‘I will never wear a mask’: Washington County officials want COVID-19 threat level rescinded

Photo illustration. | Photo by Zubada/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As recorded cases of COVID-19 in Southern Utah crossed the 1,000 mark Saturday, some Washington County officials would like to see the state’s color-coded coronavirus restrictions changed or lifted so life can begin to “get back to normal.”

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News

While Beaver, Garfield and Kane counties recently achieved the “new normal” green level, or the lowest threat level, for the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington and Iron counties remain at yellow due to infection rates that have continued to climb, with a new one-day high of 57 cases Saturday.

“I believe that classification (green level) would apply to Washington County,” Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist said Tuesday following the commission’s regular meeting that day. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to stand 6 feet apart or not take precautions, or mean Plexiglas shields are coming down. Businesses can still do what they think is safe.”

Almquist added that going to the green status would also “give us our freedoms back and allow us to rebuild our economy” as current coronavirus restriction recommendations on businesses and gatherings would be lifted.

However, in a press conference held exclusively with Southern Utah media Friday, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said Washington County may see stricter health guidelines reinstated if case numbers don’t start to go down.

When looking at your case trajectory, we’re in that last window where we can control it without extreme measures,” Dunn said following a report that residents at two assisted living facilities in St. George – The Wentworth at the Meadows and St. George Rehabilitation – had developed COVID-19 cases despite strict measures to keep the virus out.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah, on May 11, 2020. | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

On Saturday, the southwest Utah region, which accounts for the five aforementioned counties, saw 57 new COVID-19 infections according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. This puts the overall recorded case number for the region at 1,031. Twenty-one people also remain hospitalized. No additional deaths were reported.

At the St. George drive-thru coronavirus testing site, where the line of cars has grown each week, cars were lined up around the block Saturday morning at the site at Dixie Regional Medical Center’s 400 East campus.

Overall, the state added an additional 643 new cases – a new single-day high – Saturday, making for a total of 17,068.

Dunn released the following statement Saturday:

“These numbers are sobering. For three straight weeks now our cases have been increasing at a rate that isn’t sustainable. We are at risk for overwhelming our hospital capacity, which could result in Utahns not getting the medical care they need. The only explanation for this increase in cases is that we are experiencing a real and a dramatic rise in the spread of COVID-19 across our state.

“The public health response to this pandemic has not eased up, and we are asking individuals not to ease their own response as well. We continue to contact trace, test, evaluate data, and provide policy-makers with evidence-based recommendations. As they engage more with the economy, Utah residents must do their part by limiting their number of close contacts through good physical distancing, wearing a mask when physical distancing is not possible, staying home if you’re sick, and washing your hands regularly.”

While Dunn has said Southern Utah may benefit from moving back to an orange status, one county commissioner vehemently opposes the idea.

“I think its time to get back to normal,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said Saturday. “Our citizens want to be free. And we’re done. We’re just done with whatever color they want to put up. We want to go back to red, white and blue. Let us worry about our health.”

Iverson added he “will never wear a mask” and reiterated previous calls for the state government to leave COVID-19 related decision making and policy in the hands of local health departments rather than “an un-elected bureaucrat” in Salt Lake City.

In this March 2020 file photo, Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson speaks to St. George News about the county’s state of emergency declaration. On June 20, Iverson told St. George News he would “never wear a mask.” St. George, Utah, March 20, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“This upsets me obviously,” Iverson, who is running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Greg Hughes, said, adding he felt the actions taken by the state, particularly through Gov. Gary Herbert’s office, were violating the constitutional rights of the people in the name of health policy.

“Let’s stop the public health policy that really denies people their rights and ability to exercise their free will,” Iverson said Tuesday. “The rest of us really want to get back to normal.”

Nevertheless, Iverson said COVID-19 was real and people need to take the necessary precautions (even while railing against being told to wear a face mask, he said he would still wash his hands regularly) in order to curb the spread of the virus. He said people should still be able to make their own decisions without government interference.

In a tweet Saturday afternoon, Herbert reiterated what he said is the need for Utahns to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

“As we see COVID-19 cases spike, I urge all Utahns to use face coverings,” Herbert said. “I wear face masks every day. I know it can look and feel a little different. But data shows it slows the spread of this pernicious virus.””

Though Dunn is a public face for the Utah Health Department during COVID-19 briefings, she is also just one voice among others who advise the governor concerning what course to take regarding the implementation of regional virus threat levels and related policy. In addition to the health angle that is considered, so too is the continuing impact on the regional and state economy.

“If we keep seeing a spike in cases, our economy is going to suffer no matter what the color is,” Dunn said Friday.

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 20, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 1,031 (57 new)

  • Washington County: 806 (39 new)
  • Iron County: 214 (17 new)
  • Garfield County: 5 (1 new)
  • Kane County: 5
  • Beaver County: 1

Deaths: 9

  • Washington County: 7
  • Iron County: 1
  • Garfield County: 1

Hospitalized: 21

Tested: 16,544

Recovered: 697 (2 new)

St. George News reporter Chris Reed contributed to this story.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!