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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Grand County Council Is Seeking Permission From Governor To Require Masks In Moab

A group of people standing on the sidewalk.
Kate Groetzinger/ KUER News
Tourists in Moab on May 23, the first weekend after lodging restrictions were lifted in Grand County.

Masks are a contentious issue in Moab. Local officials have pushed visitors to voluntarily use them since tourism resumed, but many visitors aren’t complying. Now, the Grand County Council is pushing to make face coverings mandatory inside all public places and businesses. 

“I would like people to do it voluntarily,” said councilmember Jaylyn Hawkes, who voted in favor of the measure. “But we’ve had the last month, or six weeks, to decide whether or not we’re going to do it voluntarily, and it doesn’t look like that’s happening.”

The measure passed 5 to 2 in a meeting Tuesday night, with the council’s most conservative members voting against it. Councilmember Rory Paxman, a local tour company owner, said the measure will hurt business.

“Why don’t we tell people, ‘If you’re sick, stay home’?” he said, adding that some business owners in the community are concerned about paying their taxes this year. 

But seemingly healthy people can still spread COVID-19, as medical studies have shown

Councilmember Curtis Wells, who also voted against the measure, said he doesn’t think the government should mandate masks because they could pose health risks. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of emails on this from citizens,” Wells said. “I’ve been reading a lot of data about the reduction in oxygen levels related to masks, and I have concerns related to that.” 

The World Health Organization says surgical masks, when worn properly, do not reduce oxygen intake. Researchers at Stanford say cloth masks are also safe, while N95 masks “might potentially affect oxygen levels but likely not to a dangerous extent.”

Council Chair Mary McGann, who introduced the measure, said  the council has received 47 emails in support of requiring masks and 17 opposing it. She also cited statistics related to a reduction in transmission rates of COVID-19 between those wearing masks versus those who are not. 

“If a COVID carrier wearing a mask encounters a healthy person with a mask, the transmission rate is 1.5%,” McGann said. 

This specific information has not been proven, but the CDC does recommend people wear cloth face coverings to protect those around them. 

Hawkes cited modeling from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that predicts deaths related to COVID-19 in Utah will reach around 400 in October with no new precautions in place, as opposed to 280 with a universal mask policy. The Institute’s modeling came under fire earlier in the pandemic, when the White House used it to plan for reopening. 

There have been only 16 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Grand County so far. Four of those cases were confirmed in the past week, as Hawkes pointed out. Still, the county is within the criteria that would allow it to move to the green, or new normal phase of Utah’s reopening plan, according to Southeast Utah Health Director Bradon Bradford. He added that COVID-19 cases have not spiked following upticks in tourism like on Memorial Day weekend, as he and others expected. 

“I think it’s a little bit of a testament to what local people are doing,” he said, referring to wearing masks and practicing social distancing. “But it doesn’t mean we are in the clear.” 

The council decided to postpone a vote on whether to voluntarily move from Yellow to Green until its regular meeting next week. The  governor announced on June 24 that he won’t move any counties to Green for at least a two week period, due to an ongoing rise in new cases statewide.  

Grand County still needs permission from the governor’s office in order to require face coverings inside all public places and businesses. 

Summit and Salt Lake counties already have similar mask requirements in place. 

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

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Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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