SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County has mandated face coverings in public since June 27. At first, the mandate seemed to be working. But now the county is at the forefront of a resurgence of COVID-19 in Utah, with statewide daily case counts regularly topping 1,000.
Because of the recent spike, most of the state is now under a mask mandate in public, indoor settings or when physical distancing can’t be maintained. That change went into effect with the new transmission index Gov. Gary Herbert introduced on Oct. 13. Yet case counts haven’t slowed in the two weeks since then.
So what gives? Are masks even helping?
In an Oct. 14 news conference, Salt Lake County Health Department executive director Gary Edwards said the county is doing “fairly well” with following the mandate.
“In fact, I will say, even better,” Edwards amended. “We’re doing well with mask-wearing. I extend our appreciation to county residents for taking that seriously. When we go into facilities, we are very conscious of wearing face coverings.”
It’s informal social gatherings that are catching Utahns off guard, Edwards said.
“When we’re out in the open, or when we’re with family and friends, we sometimes let our guard down,” he said. “Most of the cases of COVID-19, up until now, have been contracted through those close contacts — individuals we know.”
Edwards said Utahns don’t need to be wearing masks at home with people they live with unless one of those people is sick. But when Utahns are around someone they don’t live with, he said, they “need to be wearing a face covering.”
“As we’re with our friends, even though we might be in groups smaller than 10, we let our guard down and we’re seeing spread as a result of that,” he said. “We need to be a little more vigilant in using face coverings indoors and out, and especially when we’re with those we’re comfortable with.”
Ten is the maximum number of people who should be included in casual social gatherings for counties in the state’s designated “high” level of transmission, which includes the vast majority of Utah counties and every county on the Wasatch Front. Per the state’s definition, casual social gatherings include things like family dinners, get-togethers with friends and book clubs. The state does not put religious services, or events with “organizational oversight,” under this umbrella.
Ilene Risk is an epidemiologist for the Salt Lake County Health Department. She told KSL.com that it’s OK for Utahns to remove masks around their immediate family members, but they should mask up again around extended family and friends, especially as the holidays approach.
We need you to slow the spread of the virus by wearing a mask anytime you are around anyone you do not live with — AND limiting social gatherings to 10 or less.
Masks are required in the vast majority of the state, and in all counties along the Wasatch Front.
— State of Utah COVID-19 Response (@UtahCoronavirus) October 29, 2020
She said the county’s mask mandate had a “measurable impact” over the summer in quelling virus transmission. But the recent spike suggests to her that the rules are being skirted in some instances. “I just think that it’s not the masks that are not working,” Risk said. “It’s a number of factors. Perhaps people are unable to wear them for whatever reason, and with essential workers, I just really hope there’s the support provided to allow people to do that.
“Also, it might be really challenging in some high-density housing situations for individuals. But as far as, for people that can be as compliant as possible, it would make a huge difference.”
A county health department spokesman said the department recently conducted its most extensive observational study yet on the use of face coverings in Utah; however, the observations ended just days ago and data is still being analyzed.
Risk said there is “clearly some fatigue going on” among Utahns tired of months of masks, distancing and modifying their behavior. “And it’s at the worst possible moment that people can get tired of this virus,” she said, “because it’s certainly not tired of us, and you can see that with our increases.”
According to a July report from BYU, which summarized the findings of 115 scientific studies, cloth masks can stop 90% or more of the dispersal of droplets carrying the coronavirus.
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