Local mayors praise governor’s COVID-19 orders, but health department says it can’t do much to enforce it

ST. GEORGE — Ivins City Mayor Chris Hart doesn’t need to look at the latest numbers of infected, hospitalized and dead to make his own determination on whether he agrees with Gov. Gary Herbert’s order to stem the growing spread of the coronavirus, including the mandating of masks. 

Ivins City Mayor Chris Hart seen during a Zoom conference call with reporters on Nov. 9, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

Last week, Hart’s mother-in-law died of COVID-19.

“It a shame that this little device has become a controversy,” Hart said as he held his mask. “Speaking as a 72-year old diabetic, it’s just a courtesy issue to me. …  I’m a grandparent of 21 plus grandchildren. Those who have contracted the virus have contracted it at home rather than at school. I’m not a scientist, but we need to particularly wear masks whether we believe it’s the right thing to do or not, we could just do it.”

Hart and four other local mayors, including St. George Mayor Jon Pike, held a joint Zoom conference with chief doctors from Dixie Regional Medical Center offering their support for the governor’s state of emergency order, which made the wearing of masks in public places mandatory in Utah and also placed a two-week ban on most social gatherings and school extracurricular activities.

Hart is not the only mayor who has had the virus reach their doorstep. Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson said he has a close friend in an intensive care unit right now battling the virus. 

“We’re not asked to wear a nuclear device, just to wear a mask,” Nielson said.

Even with that praise, a spokesperson for the Southwest Public Health Department said the department, which has been tasked with enforcing the mandates, does not have the resources to do so. 

Chart shows the orders issued by Gov. Gary Herbert on Nov. 8, 2020, as part of a COVID-19 State of Emergency in Utah. | Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

On Sunday, the governor issued a new public emergency order that made the wearing of face masks in public places mandatory statewide and, for the next two weeks, prohibited social gatherings with people outside an immediate household and postponed nonplayoff school sports and other after school events. 

Just a little under a month after it was created, the Utah COVID-19 Transmission Index that was designed to replace the previous red-orange-yellow-green color risk levels issue by the state has been set aside – at least temporarily.

The complete order can be found here.

At a Monday morning press conference, the governor said enforcement of the mandates will be “at the local level — local health departments and law enforcement.”

At their joint press appearance, the mayors said it will be the local health department, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, that will advise on enforcement steps.

“I would hope those kinds of things wouldn’t happen, but we would be looking to the health department to advise us,” Pike said. 

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said whether they have the authority to monitor and take punitive measures against businesses and individuals that violate the orders, they don’t have the people to execute it. 

The St. George, Utah office of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, Oct. 29, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“I don’t think you can expect us or law enforcement to be zealous enforcers of this if we don’t have the manpower,” Heaton said. “Even though there’s authority, resources and manpower is a different question. We really don’t have the resources.

Even if the department had an army of people at its disposal, Heaton expressed an unwillingness for the department to play the role of mask or social distancing police.

“We really don’t want to be seen as law enforcement. That’s not our job,” he said. 

At the same time, Heaton said there have been people locally with the virus who have deliberately been going into public places with the goal of spreading it. The department and local police have collaborated to arrest those responsible for endangering the public and will continue to do so. 

“That’s a different story, and that’s a direct threat, and we’ve had that happen,” Heaton said. “When that’s happened, we have worked with law enforcement.”

Something the governor, the mayors and Heaton agreed on is the government order will be useless if people ignore it. And it will be up to the residents of Utah to determine if the measures put any stop to what they say is a pandemic out of control in the state. 

Gov. Gary Herbert listens as Gov.-elect Spencer Cox announces details related to their upcoming transition of leadership in the Gold Room at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by.Steve Griffin/Deseret News via Associated Press, St. George News

Herbert said a reason why Utah is facing its worst period of the pandemic is while many have made an effort to socially distance and wear masks when they can’t, there are many others who have continued to either willingly or neglectfully ignore the preventative measures.

“This isn’t about a government mandate, it’s about people taking personal responsibility. We should see some results if people change their behavior. If we don’t, nothing will change,” said Herbert. “This has nothing to do with politics. It’s unfortunate we’ve had this pandemic in a political year. Politics have gotten in the way of us coming together and people have used it as a political tool to advocate their position.”

Besides the local health departments, the mask mandate will have some punitive measures for businesses that violate it. Herbert said businesses that are found not to have everyone inside wearing masks will receive punishments from the Utah Labor Department ranging from a large fine to the revoking of their business license.

From upper left clockwise, Dixie Regional Medical Center Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll, Ivins City Mayor Chris Hart, St. George Mayor Jon Pike and Santa Clara Mayor Rick Rosenberg seen during a Zoom conference call with reporters on Nov. 9, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

“I know the reality that it will be hard to enforce, but it is enforceable. It just has a little more teeth now,” Herbert said. 

Herbert provided some clarification on some aspects of the mask mandate. 

For example, a business like a dance studio can continue to operate as long as all the practicing dancers are 6 feet apart and wearing masks. 

He also defended some exceptions to his orders, like high school sports playoffs continuing and no shutdown orders for any business as well as keeping schools and church services open. 

“We’re trying to find the right balance point. It may not be perfect. … The balance point of allowing First Amendment rights to worship, have businesses functions with procedures in place.” 

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn with the Utah Department of Health put what people need to do for the next two weeks in simpler terms.

“In the next two weeks, I urge you to just mingle and gather with those in your house,” Dunn said. “We’re trying to slow the spread of the virus.”

St. George Mayor Jon Pike seen during a Zoom conference call with reporters on Nov. 9, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

St. George’s mayor offered optimism that people in his city are up to the task. 

“I support, and St. George supports, the directive from the governor. We can be more diligent,” Pike said. “I believe we can take a break from our gatherings for two weeks and this will make a difference. We are good here in Southern Utah at accomplishing tough things.”

Santa Clara Mayor Rick Rosenberg was a little blunter in regard to those raising issues with wearing masks. 

“If you were given a free pass to keep from getting in an accident on the way home, would you say, ‘You’re taking my freedom away?’” Rosenberg said. “Some of it is stupid.”

The tipping point is now

Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief medical officer for Intermountain Healthcare, was asked when the tipping point would be for his hospitals. 

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through Nov. 9, 2020. | Background photo by by
mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“We are at the tipping point today. We are beyond capacity today,” Briesacher said Monday. “We’re committed to being there for you, but we’re on a path that is going to be difficult.”

For the seventh-straight day, Southern Utah had more than 100 new infections. (114). At this point, the number of new infections are coming in so quickly that the Southwest Utah Public Health Department has not been able to fully update the county-by-county numbers.

However, it is unlikely that the status quo has changed where a large majority of the new infections are taking place in Washington County. Up until Sunday, an average of 85% of the new infections in Southern Utah in the last week have been in Washington County (107.7 7-day daily average in Washington County vs. 126 average in five counties).

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director at DRMC, still sees cause for optimism, but it mainly lies in the governor’s order. 

“We’re moving in the wrong direction. But the good news is, if we do what the governor outlined, we can turn it around,” Carroll said.

Carroll said between having to create additional ICU space, the hospital remains in a contingency phase but is moving close to what he calls a crisis phase. 

Interior of BLU-MED tent at Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George News

At that moment, people experiencing traumas like heart attacks or car accidents will not be able to be accommodated at the hospital. And patients in the COVID-19 wing will be triaged with the most work being done for those with the best chance of survival.

The moment the hospital needs to move patients into the temporary BLU-MED tent outside, it will be in a crisis phase, Carroll said. 

Dr. Bryce Ferguson, the director of Dixie’s ICU, wants to see a sign from the public that they don’t want to see the medical center reach the crisis phase. 

“Our nurses are tired,” he said. “They would love for the community to back them up.”

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 Nov. 9, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 7,219 (119.9 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Nov. 6)

  • Undetermined County: 164
  • Washington County: 5,836 
  • Iron County: 1056 
  • Kane County: 107 
  • Garfield County: 120 
  • Beaver County: 100 

Deaths: 61 (0.6 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 50  (1 new since last report: Hospitalized male 65-84)
  • Iron County: 4 
  • Garfield County: 5
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 1 

Hospitalized: 34 (rising)

Active cases: 2,142

Recovered: 5,237

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,437 (rising)

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

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