‘It is a carrot or stick’: Governor clarifies mask order for schools, but leaves few openings

Photo illustration of children going to school in masks. | Photo by puhimec, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert offered clarification on the flexibility of his mask mandate for K-12 students.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 16, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

Herbert gave some additional details on requiring all students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside schools throughout the state when classes resume next month. 

Herbert said while he understands the concerns of those who have said the mandate is government overreach, he views the move as no different than a health department not allowing a restaurant to have health violations. 

“The state health department statute allows us Constitutionally to make those kinds of decisions. That’s why restaurants get closed,” Herbert said. “That’s part of their job. That’s the same statute we’re using.”

Officials with both the Washington County School District and the Iron County School District have been awaiting further clarification on the order to formulate their own plans of how to enforce it. After some final work, especially on guidelines for school extracurricular activities, the governor said they should have their answers by Friday. 

Tonaquint Intermediate School on an undisclosed date in St. George, Utah. | Photo courtesy Tonaquint Intermediate School, St. George News

Herbert said besides masks not being required in outdoor spaces in schools, there would be some other “common sense” exemptions to having to wear a mask at a school:

  • If maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet from anyone else. 
  • Eating lunch.
  • Children younger than age 3.
  • Those who have disabilities.
  • Some extracurricular activities.

Herbert also said teachers will be encouraged to use clear plastic facemasks to better convey instruction to students, though it is not clear as yet if this will be a mandate or if teachers will be provided with the clear face shields.

While there are some conflicting studies concerning the risk of those under 13 years of age, Herbert said the main reason to require masks in schools is to protect those who supervise them. 

“The purpose is to create the safest environment possible for those involved in our education system, and those most vulnerable are the teachers, principles, janitors, bus drivers,” Herbert said. “ We want the safest environment possible.” 

Herbert is asking all school districts in the state to have their reopening plans ready by Aug. 1. 

Photo illustration of children going to school in masks. | Photo by puhimec, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

And as much as the governor is insistent on a mask mandate on schools, he is just as insistent on schools reopening.

To that end, the governor also announced on Thursday a change to Utah’s color coronavirus risk levels, allowing for schools to still be open during the orange risk level. Previously, schools were to be closed in orange.

“It’s imperative we open our schools,” Herbert said. 

A majority of the state is in the yellow risk level at this point, though Herbert has said he is considering moving the entire state to orange on Aug. 1 if the seven-day statewide new case rate – that now stands at 619 – doesn’t fall below 500. Some counties, like Salt Lake and Summit, are already at orange while some rural counties like Beaver, Kane and Garfield are at the lowest green level. 

In both Southern Utah and the state as a whole, there have been initial signs that increased mask wearing in the last 10 days is causing the rate of new coronavirus cases to go down

There has been some resistance to a mandate for masks to be required in schools, including a Tuesday protest in St. George outside a Washington County School Board meeting and a Wednesday Utah County Commission meeting that had to be cut short after anti-mask protesters filled the room without face coverings and social distancing. 

Madeline Kazantzis stands with protestors outside of the Washington County School District building, St. George, Utah, July 14, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Madeline Kazantzis, St. George News

Herbert expressed being dismayed about some misinformation he said has been propagated, including masks causing carbon dioxide build-up or that the effort to have people wear masks is part of a greater global conspiracy. 

“I don’t think Bill Gates is behind this, yet that is a story being told,” Herbert said. “There’s a lot of moving parts, and that causes fear and people get angry when they have fear. We sometimes do foolish things when we should be more thoughtful of our actions.”

Herbert applauded the moves in the last two days of Walmart, Target, Smith’s, Alberstons and other retailers that will now require all customers to wear face coverings to enter their stores. Nevertheless, Herbert warned if people do not heed the warnings of health officials and wear masks themselves, it can still go from being asked to being told. 

“It is a carrot or stick. I hope people will take the carrot because they love their neighbor. We can’t say it is everyone else’s responsibility, it’s all of ours,” Herbert said. “Compared to our greatest generation that fought in World War II … I heard a lady say putting on a mask is too much to do. We need perspective in terms of sacrifice.”

At the press conference with the governor, Dr. Tom Miller, chief medical officer, University of Utah Health, took the podium and warned that hospitals in the state are still near capacity, adding that surgeons have worn masks for 140 years without them causing a health incident to the surgeon. 

“You wouldn’t want to go to a surgeon not wearing a mask,” Miller said, adding that with no known cure or proven treatment for COVID-19, masks are the only real pill he can prescribe right now. “Masks are our medicine right now. Let’s be mask missionaries.”

‘Why are people making a big deal’

One person who might have a perspective on wearing masks in schools is Evan Allen, who compared to others is a pioneer on the subject.

Evan Allen shows off his Santa Claus artwork in December 2019 while wearing a mask at school. | Photo courtesy of McKay Allen, St. George News

He is 5 years old. 

Before COVID-19 even existed, Evan was wearing a mask in school. The kindergartner wore a mask throughout the last school year because of his cystic fibrosis. 

His father McKay Allen told St. George News that his son is aware of all the news coverage concerning requiring masks in school. While Evan doesn’t talk about being cool before it was cool, he has trouble understanding why some grown-ups don’t think kids can handle it. 

“He was like, ‘I just don’t understand why people are making a big deal about this … I wear it all the time,’” Allen said of Evan. “He said, ‘I don’t even realize I’m wearing it.”

Allen, whose family includes another older son and wife, Stacy, lived in St. George until having to move up to Herriman a year ago. He has wanted Evan to have the normal childhood experience as he was starting kindergarten, but were coming off a preschool experience where McKay said his son was constantly sick, including spending 28 days of the school year in a hospital. The Allens worked with the school on measures that included those becoming familiar to the rest of society now – constant cleaning of surfaces, all the students having to wash their hands multiple times a day, students not coming to school if they felt any sickness and, most of all, Evan having to constantly wear a mask when close to others. 

Evan is now on a 13-month stretch without a hospital visit, and as a side effect, the teacher told Allen she has never seen a class come through the year so healthy. 

“So many parents are panicking, but little kids can wear masks. They’ll do fine. They won’t mess with them,” Allen said, rejecting the notion that the youngest children will not be able to wear a mask in school. 

“It’s all about your attitude in the home. If you son tells you he doesn’t want to put on his shoes, he can’t go to school without shoes on. It’s the same type of thing. It’s all about the parent’s attitude and how they approach it and keeping people who are vulnerable safe.”

New infection numbers may be misleading

There was a single-day high of 81 new coronavirus infections in Southern Utah and 954 new cases statewide, according to the Utah Department of Health on Thursday.

Medical personnel administer COVID-19 tests at the Intermountain drive-thru coronavirus testing site outside the InstaCare in Cedar City, Utah, on July 14, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

But there’s no need to panic as a result of the increased infections, according to state health officials. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said a large backlog of previous infections that were not included in previous reports were included. 

The biggest factor is the state now has added results from a new antigen test approved by the Federal Drug Administration last month that the Utah Department of Health has now verified to be accurate. 

Not to be confused with antibody tests, which determine if the antibodies or a past coronavirus infection are in the body, antigen are another way besides the traditional PCR test people have been receiving up until now to determine if a person presently has COVID-19.

A photo illustration of a rapid antigen COVID-19 teat. Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The promise of antigen tests is unlike the PCR tests that can require days and transport to a lab to determine a result, the FDA said antigen tests can yield results in minutes. They are also less invasive than the long swab up the nostril of the PCR test, requiring only a swam of the mouth or the outside area of the nostril.

The reporting of antigen tests in the state has only been able to be verified in the last two weeks and were only added to state case rates Thursday. 

Dunn said of the 954 cases reported in the state, 251 were from the antigen backlog and 296 others were also from a previous backlog, leaving 407 actual new cases Thursday.

Representatives of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department were not able to provide information on how many of the 81 local cases Thursday were from the backlog. However, the trend of cases in the previous days had been on a steep downward trend.  

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 16, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 2,239 (51.1 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 1,750 (36.6 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 398 (7.7 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 20 (0.3 per day, steady) 
  • Kane County: 26 (1.9 per day, dropping)
  • Beaver County: 12 (0.0 per day, steady) 
  • Cases not identified by county: 33

Deaths: 19 (0.6 per day, dropping)

  • Washington County: 15 
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2

Hospitalized: 12 

Recovered: 1,516

Current Utah seven-day average (Goal of less than 500 by Aug. 1 ): 619 (rising)

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

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