Why don’t governments mandate masks? A look into Provo’s process

The Provo City Council is in the middle of discussions about whether or not to mandate masks now that BYU and UVU students are returning. The Provo Library is one of the locations college students and communities share, which could lead to a COVID-19 outbreak. (Addie Blacker)

Utah is one of 16 states that do not have some sort of state-wide mask mandate. Whether or not cities, counties and states decide to mandate masks comes down to the world views and political leanings of both government officials and community members in each state.

While Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has mandated the use of face coverings in K-12 schools and state facilities, he has allowed individual counties and cities to make decisions on mandates for their areas.

Utah Executive Order 2020-50 states “a political subdivision desiring to adopt a mandatory face covering requirement may do so without prior approval from the Utah Department of Health by notifying the Utah Department of Health of their intent to adopt the requirement.”

This executive order (and its predecessors) has allowed Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties to pass mask mandates along with the cities of Springdale, Logan and Bluff; however, this version of the order expires on Thursday, Aug. 20. Although its predecessors were renewed, some are uncertain what will happen to the order this time.

The Provo City Council gathered for a work meeting on Aug. 18 to discuss the possibility of mandating face coverings in the city before the order expires, as BYU and UVU students begin to return to Provo for the upcoming school year.

While Provo currently has a campaign to encourage mask wearing called Mask Up Provo, Council Chair George Handley said recent events like the Young/Dumb party on Aug. 7 caused him to wonder if these efforts would be enough when the city’s population changes with the return of students.

Research guiding Provo City Council

During the Aug. 18 meeting, BYU professors Ben Abbott and Chantel Sloan presented their research to the council about the efficacy of masks and the potential spread of COVID-19 this fall in schools.

Abbott said the research shows the only areas that have achieved 80-90% mask-wearing compliance are the areas with mask mandates.

As for reopening schools, Abbott said Provo is in uncharted territory as public schools and universities return to class. “The other places that have successfully reopened primary and secondary schools typically are at a rate of COVID-19 of about 20 cases per million people in the population per day. And we’re at about five times that rate proportional to our population right now.”

According to Sloan, she hopes there will be no huge outbreaks on campus with BYU’s protocols, but student interconnectedness and housing pose risks for the spread of the disease. Also, any outbreak on campus might lead to an outbreak in the larger Provo community because of the interactions between the two groups.

“We should not expect the progress of things over the summer to continue because the network is changing so dramatically, so it has the potential to be very serious,” she said. She suggested the city and BYU need to work together to develop contingency plans in case “the worst happens.”

Sloan is also working with two other BYU professors to make some preliminary predictions regarding the potential spread of the virus on campus. “We do anticipate that these outbreaks are not going to be well-contained in the absence of very restrictive quarantining and testing.”

Sloan said the final research could be finished in a week. So far most of their simulations show roughly 10,000-13,000 students could be infected within 40 days of returning to school, but strict quarantining of every positive case and everyone they contact could reduce that number to between 500 and 1,000 cases. BYU’s mask requirement on campus and changes to class offerings does improve numbers, but the concern still lies in student housing where masks are not required.

“Most of those outbreaks will occur among people who are compliant and respectful, but simply because of the way viruses work and travel, which is to take advantage of the interconnectedness of our social networks, mostly within our own households.”

She noted that while college-aged students aren’t as likely to die from COVID-19, the law of large numbers shows that many students would need hospitalization and for every 2,000 infected students, one would die.

Why are governments hesitant to mandate masks?

Because this discussion occurred at a work meeting and was not on the main city council meeting’s agenda, the council was unable to make any mandates on Tuesday but it plans to meet on Thursday, Aug. 20 at 5:30 p.m. to continue the discussion and potentially make a mandate or resolution. The council has asked for public input on the matter. Residents can use the city’s Open City Hall to submit their opinions.

While most council members voiced support for taking action to protect residents through stricter mask rules, Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said she is hesitant to mandate masks for four reasons: it’s not in her nature to lead by mandate; she doesn’t believe the city should make health decisions; she has concerns about enforcement; and the police chief is also opposed to a mask mandate.

“Remember that we can’t arrest our way out of problems,” Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson said about the potential of enforcing a mandate.

Council member Travis Hoban also expressed reluctance about mandating masks because he’s uncertain how much impact it would have when many businesses and public transportation already require masks.

According to BYU professor Adam Dynes, there are two reasons governments are hesitant to mandate masks: different world views or ideologies and the partisan dynamic surrounding the issue.

Leaders might have different ideas as to what trade-offs are more important when balancing things like the economy and public health. Dynes also said disagreements about the science of the disease can affect a leader’s decision as well.

In terms of partisanship, government officials often follow the leaders of the party they align with. Republicans will be more inclined to support President Trump’s decisions and follow his guidance. “Due to the position taken by the President and other influential Republicans, it’s become the Republican thing to be maybe more dismissive of the need for government to mandate things,” Dynes said.

On the other hand, Democrats are more likely oppose President Trump and take different approaches to handling the pandemic, Dynes said.

Voters are also influenced by partisanship and have their own world views. “That puts an electoral incentive on elected officials to also be in line with what they think their voters want, especially their base, whose support they need for primary elections and to stay in office,” Dynes said.

President Trump in particular could be influenced by the need to favor the economy over other things in order to win in November, Dynes said. “There’s a lot of political science that shows how much a good economy helps the current president to do better and stay in office. And so I think he’s also interpreted that to be that, he needs the economy to be doing as well as possible for reelection purposes.”

These national influences can also play a part in local leaders’ decisions on mandating masks. In Provo’s case, Dynes said the area is typically more conservative, so the leaders will be affected by those world views.

“If they think a lot of their constituents are more in line with like President Trump’s views on the issue or those who might downplaying some of the public health concerns with the pandemic, then that’s also going to impact their decision making because probably many of them want to be reelected.”

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