Iron County commissioners, sheriff clarify stance regarding not enforcing mask mandate

Stock image. | Photo by kovop58, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

CEDAR CITY — Following concerns raised about comments made on social media, two Iron County commissioners and the county sheriff have clarified their positions regarding Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide mask mandate and emergency order issued Sunday.

Independence Day parade, Cedar City, Utah, July 4, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

In separate interviews with Cedar City News, commissioners Paul Cozzens and Mike Bleak both said they don’t agree with the governor’s mask mandate, which was announced late Sunday night, and they won’t push to have it enforced. 

“We’re just not enforcing them in our county,” Cozzens said Tuesday. “Our sheriff’s not going to go out and give tickets to people. That’s all there is to it.”

Cozzens said he’s been using a spreadsheet to keep track of various events held in Iron County during the past several months, including an outdoor concert, the county fair, baseball and softball tournaments, parades and a livestock show.

“Through all those events, there were no spikes,” Cozzens said. “None. In fact, at the Iron County Fair, there were very few people wearing masks to do outdoor activities, and the numbers went down, not up.”

Bleak, who spoke to Cedar City News in person following a public event Wednesday afternoon, also lauded Iron County’s relatively low COVID-19 transmission rate.

“We’ve been doing really well,” he said. “Since the beginning, our transmission rates and our infection rates … ebbed and flowed, but overall have stayed relatively low. Our hospitalizations have been very low. Our deaths have been very low.”

Iron County Commission candidate Paul Cozzens speaks during Iron County GOP Convention, Canyon View High School, Cedar City, Utah, April 14, 2018 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Bleak said the county has “good responsible citizens that have been making correct choices since the very beginning.”

“There is no threat of a fine or anything from the government here in Iron County, from law enforcement or the commission or anybody,” he said, “and we’ve still maintained these relatively low rates and done really well.”

Bleak said the governor’s mandates don’t take into account the demographic differences seen in various parts of the state.

“I just don’t think they’re helpful,” he said. “I don’t believe that it’s the government’s role to enforce those. Especially law enforcement. It’s not a criminal act. Law enforcement has their hands full with all sorts of other things.”

Bleak sees mask wearing as a choice best left up to the individual.

“Everybody has the right to make decisions for their own health and their own healthcare,” he said, adding that he’s noticed more people wearing masks in public this week. “I wouldn’t dissuade anybody from wearing a mask. I mean, if you want to wear a mask, great. If you don’t want to wear a mask, be courteous of those that do want to wear a mask, and vice versa.”

Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter, Cedar City, Utah, July 30, 2020 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter also weighed in, saying he believes the governor’s mandate to be well-intentioned but that it doesn’t take the full scope of the problem into account.

“I’m heartsick to see the people that are dying,” Carpenter told Cedar City News on Wednesday. “But the problem as I see it is that the governor is looking only at one very small part of the total overall picture of what’s happening with COVID and with COVID mandates.”

Carpenter pointed to several other issues that he says have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Since the COVID mandates that were previously enforced, we’ve had a spike in domestic violence,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had four homicides, three of which can be tied back to domestic violence. We’ve had multiple suicides, we’ve had numerous unattended deaths.”

Regarding the latter, Carpenter said he believed people didn’t seek medical care because they were afraid to go to the hospital.

“When they start hearing horror stories about going to the hospital and dying by themselves because no family members are allowed into the hospital to be with them, they choose to stay at home and die.”

Carpenter also cited increased vehicle fatalities as other “unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“I think that we need to be able to look at the bigger picture and be able to address the entire issue,” he said, adding that he believed the governor has “the very best of intentions” and is “very sincere in his approach.”

“But I don’t think that he has all the information. I think that if he’s sincere in wanting to stop Utahns from dying, he needs to expand the picture from those that are dying from COVID and include those that are dying from other causes.”

Iron County Commissioner Mike Bleak speaks during a public event in Cedar City, Utah, Nov. 11, 2020. Bleak and other attendees wore masks during the gathering but took them off when speaking to the crowd. | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Regarding the question of enforcement, Carpenter did note that intentionally spreading COVID-19 can be considered a criminal act and will be dealt with accordingly.

“Essentially, the final decision is left up to the local authorities whether they’re going to enforce it,” he said. “We have enforced it, but we’ve enforced it when COVID-19 is being utilized as a weapon with intent to infect somebody else with the virus.”

Carpenter said someone going into a grocery store symptom-free and not wanting to wear a mask “doesn’t mean that they have the intent to infect anyone else.”

Another issue both Cozzens and Bleak mentioned was the potential negative economic impact of the mandate, specifically Herbert saying the new mandate wouldn’t close businesses.

“I just got a call yesterday from a business owner in Cedar City that’s going to have six events canceled over the next two weeks,” Cozzens said, “and it’s going to cost her thousands of dollars in income. Who’s going to pay those bills? Is the governor going to pay her bills this month?”

Bleak shared similar concerns, citing two specific event cancellations that happened this week.

“For instance, today was the SUU Iron Leaders Academy service day. I’m a member of that and we weren’t able to hold our event,” he said, adding that another event hosted by the Cedar City Area Chamber of Commerce also had to be canceled, “which resulted in a loss of thousands of dollars of revenue to the chamber, which works on a shoestring budget anyway. So those are two real examples.”

“We’ve got to keep the community open,” Bleak said. “We have to give people the opportunity to make a living and provide for their families. … Even though we haven’t closed the doors to our restaurants, there is a ripple effect that has affected our local economy yet again. There’s all sorts of unintended consequences when these things are out there. But even though they’re unintended, they’re very real consequences.”

In their statements this week, both Cozzens and Bleak reiterated several of the ideas and opinions they’d previously stated in writing in an open public letter from the Iron County Commission dated Oct. 15. To read that document in its entirety, which was also signed by fellow commissioner Alma Adams, click here.

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

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