Mask up Provo? City Council passes mask mandate but Kaufusi plans to veto it

The Provo City Council passed a mask mandate on Aug. 25, but Mayor Michelle Kaufusi intends to veto it. The mandate would require people to wear masks while indoors and at gatherings. (Addie Blacker)

The Provo City Council passed an ordinance mandating masks with a unanimous vote in a council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 25. However, Mayor Michelle Kaufusi subsequently announced her intent to veto it.

While the council was debating, BYU students were gathering in large groups on campus without wearing masks or practicing social distancing despite the university’s instructions and a previous City Council resolution encouraging masks in Provo.

The ordinance would not prohibit public gatherings but would require masks and social distancing in certain situations to “ensure a coordinated implementation of practices which slow the transmission of COVID-19,” the ordinance final draft states.

Under the ordinance, individuals will be required to wear a face covering that completely covers the nose and mouth while in indoor areas accessible to the public where consistent social distancing of at least six feet is not possible, reasonable or prudent. The ordinance does not apply to members of the same household or to individuals within their own homes.

The ordinance also makes it unlawful to organize and promote an indoor public gathering of more than 50 people “where it is permissible or acceptable to not wear face coverings” — regardless of whether social distancing is possible — or a public outdoor event of more than 25 individuals where social distancing of six feet isn’t viable. Organizers must also post clear signage at public entrances to such events, and individuals must wear masks while attending them.

Violations of the ordinance would be civil infractions rather than criminal offenses. The maximum fine is $55 for individuals and $500 for organizers of events that do not require masks or post signage. Those fines can go up to $68.75 and $625, respectively, if not paid on time.

Exemptions to the ordinance are as follows:

  • Individuals under five years of age
  • Individuals with a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering
  • Individuals who are hearing impaired or communicating with an individual who is hearing impaired
  • Individuals who are seated at a restaurant or other establishment that offers food or beverage service while they are eating or drinking
  • Individuals for whom wearing a face covering would create a risk to the individual related to their work, as determined by local, state or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines
  • Individuals who are obtaining a service involving the nose or face for which temporary removal of the face covering is necessary to perform the service
  • Individuals who need to briefly remove a face covering to verify their identity to a retailer or service provider
  • Individuals engaging in strenuous physical activity where circumstances are not reasonably conducive to wearing a face covering, such as swimming, running and fitness classes

Immediately after the council’s vote, Mayor Kaufusi read a statement expressing her displeasure with the ordinance and her intent to veto it. “You and I have the same destination and sight, where we part is on how we get there.”

Council Chair George Handley expressed his disappointment in Kaufusi’s decision to veto the ordinance. “With a 7-0 vote, I think we’ve sent a very strong message that we feel very strongly about this,” he said, adding that her decision would cause a delay in the ordinance’s effectiveness. “This is a risk that we’re taking as a community as a result of a political battle. And I regret it, even though I understand it.”

Kaufusi immediately followed up Handley’s comment to express her disagreement. “I acted quickly tonight for that sole reason, and we will act quickly tomorrow.”

Deputy Provo City Attorney Brian Jones explained the veto doesn’t mean an automatic stop to the ordinance passed by the council and that he “sees no reason to doubt its legality.” The next step is for the council to present the ordinance to Kaufusi, who can then officially veto it and must deliver a written statement to the council that includes her reasons for the veto.

At that point, the council is required by state law to reconsider the ordinance at its next meeting and can call a special meeting to do so. If five or more council members approve the ordinance during that meeting, it would then take effect.

It’s unclear how soon the council would meet, but multiple councilors expressed the need for quick action before the ordinance was passed. If the ordinance is enacted, enforcement could also be an issue since Kaufusi’s administration would be in charge of it.

In a discussion about slightly postponing the council’s vote, Kaufusi said a later vote, such as two days later, wouldn’t be enough “to get us closer together.”

Handley also expressed concern about how the ordinance would be enforced by the city’s executive branch. “We hope that we would have some cooperation on this,” he said.

The council spent over three hours debating and amending the ordinance before passing it. Councilor Travis Hoban called himself the “black sheep” of the group, saying he was opposed to some of the aspects of the ordinance.

“I think when people hear that, they think I’m anti-mask or something like that or that I have some government conspiracy in my head or something,” he said, adding that’s not the case. Instead, he said his concerns centered around the process of the ordinance, that key stakeholders affected by the mask mandate were being left out, and that the council was being too hasty. “We’re shooting then aiming.”

He also made a motion to include a sunset clause on the ordinance for the second council meeting in October, during which the council would review the ordinance with the option to renew it.

Councilors Handley and Bill Fillmore disputed Hoban’s claim that stakeholders, such as universities like BYU and UVU, had not been involved. “I, for one, feel a need to support those institutions that are hoping that we will have comparable protection,” Fillmore said.

University students came up multiple times during the meeting, with the return of students to Provo for Fall Semester and a recent Young/Dumb party where masks were not worn being cited as the impetus of the consideration of the ordinance.

“Let’s be honest, that’s how this all started,” Hoban said. “The Young/Dumb party happened and they said, ‘Well we threw a party because there was no mandate against it.’ And so we decided we needed to address this.”

Handley, a BYU professor, also said a lot of students wrote into the council speaking as if the pandemic were not a serious issue. “They didn’t help their case,” he added.

During the 15 minutes set aside for public comments during the meeting, two BYU students called in: one in favor of a mask mandate and one against it.

In an unofficial survey about a mask mandate that received over 4,300 responses, 78% live in Provo and 73% support a mask mandate.

Ellsworth said she was worried the ordinance wasn’t broad enough, since, under the ordinance’s language, an individual could go to Macey’s on a Saturday and not need to wear a mask.

“‘Gathering’ refers to people coming together for an event (like a concert) as opposed to a group of people who just happen to be in the same location (like shopping in a store at the same time),” said the city council in a tweet during the meeting. “Definitions are key in ordinances like this.”

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