Provo City Council passes mask resolution, holds off on mandate

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Cyclists wait to cross an intersections at Center Street and University Avenue on May 1 in Provo. The Provo City Council has postponed a vote on an ordinance that would require masks in the city. (Preston Crawley)

Provo City Council passed a resolution encouraging masks to limit COVID-19 spread on Thursday, Aug. 20, with a 6-0 vote. Councilor David Harding was excused.

The resolution, which doesn’t have any legislative power but acts as an expression of intent or council opinion, will require the wearing of face masks at any public space and in buildings or events where social distancing is not reasonable, possible, or prudent as well as at indoor gatherings of over 50 persons, regardless of whether social distancing can be observed.

The resolution also requires the posting of signage to all entrances and exits of public spaces and buildings and encourages local businesses to do the same.

“We call upon all persons who live, work, study, shop, or play in Provo City to accept personal responsibility to each do our part to follow public health guidelines to the best of their abilities and within reason,” the resolution states.

Councilor Shannon Ellsworth called the resolution a “late” but “appropriate” response and Council Chair George Handley emphasized the need for further action.

“A resolution without an ordinance may not have as much teeth and traction as I would like to really move the needle on greater levels of compliance,” Handley said.

The City Council also unanimously moved to table a vote on a mask mandate through a city ordinance and will reconvene on Tuesday, Aug. 25. Councilor Bill Fillmore cited the need for further input from businesses, schools, Provo residents and other stakeholders. Councilor Dave Sewell seconded the motion, voicing the need for further time to deliberate.

Councilors Shannon Ellsworth and Travis Hoban both expressed concern about waiting too long to pass an ordinance.

“The clock is ticking and we’re late. We’re way late; we’re behind,” Ellsworth said.

Hoban referenced a possible second party in the upcoming weeks hosted by Young/Dumb, a Provo party company that recently held a party where safety guidelines were not followed, as a concern. “There are probably events coming up and we need to have made a decision,” Hoban said. “We need to make progress quickly.”

Councilor Dave Sewell also expressed his worry about the Young/Dumb party, specifically that the organizer had said the city was okay with the party, which Sewell said was technically true since there were no laws or anything against it.

The council’s decision to consider a mandate was motivated by the return of thousands of students to Provo as BYU, UVU, and various trade schools reopen for fall semesters. BYU classes begin on Aug. 31 and UVU classes begin Aug. 24.

“We’re not as well prepared as we should be for the return of college students,” Handley said. “Our population is going to significantly change in the next two weeks.”

An online survey conducted by the city between Tuesday and Thursday, received 2675 responses — about 60% percent were in favor of a mandate and the same percentage reported “always or almost always” wearing a mask outside their homes.

Councilor David Shipley said the city is not currently following the state’s guidelines to a degree that makes them effective. Handley added that the council’s goal is to get mask-wearing compliance to about 80%, a figure that other cities and regions have achieved after enacting mask mandates, according to research shared by BYU professors Ben Abbott and Chantel Sloan in the council’s Aug. 18 meeting.

Residents who called into the council meeting expressed mixed opinions about whether a mask mandate would be the best option. Some cited concerns about government overreach and personal choice, while others addressed fears about additional outbreaks if such a mandate is not enacted.

The council’s discussion of a possible mandate may be met with opposition from Mayor Michelle Kaufusi and her administration. She expressed respect for the council’s ability to enact a mandate in a statement at the beginning of the meeting but also voiced her opposition to a mandate.

“I like the signal that no mandate sends to our citizens. It says I trust them,” she said. “With the exception of a few of you on this city council, I can honestly say that none of the above partners has asked me to issue a mask mandate of any kind — not the county health department, not a university, not a legislator (again except you).”

She also invited Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson to voice his opposition to a mandate following her statement.

“I don’t have the resources to respond to the calls that the city doesn’t want to enforce in the first place,” Ferguson said.

Various council members said finding some middle ground with Kaufusi’s administration would be integral to the success of a mandate if one was passed.

“The administration being on board or not on board has a lot to do with how successful we are in selling whatever we decided to the community,” Hoban said.

The councilors disagreed, however, on what a possible mandate would look like. Fillmore said he’d support a more limited ordinance that would “surgically addresses only the highest risk situations.”

Ellsworth said she’d like to see an that would be broad enough to prevent loopholes, such as outdoor gatherings. Hoban said he’d like to see something less intrusive but that gave the city “the most bang for its buck.”

The councilors did seem to generally agree on the topic of enforcement, saying they would not criminalize violations nor go after individuals.

“I think it would take a really blatant offense for us to even give someone a citation with an infraction,” Ellsworth said. “I don’t personally want to be heavy-handed.”

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