OGDEN — Don’t expect a crackdown on anti-maskers from local health officials in the wake of Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement of a mask mandate and other steps to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the pressure has been dialed up to get the public to abide by guidelines meant to curtail the spread of COVID-19. And Brian Bennion, director of the Weber-Morgan Health Department, said enforcement measures will get increasing consideration.
“It’s more critical and I would say the emphasis on enforcement will increase a little bit,” he said Monday, a day after Gov. Gary Herbert announced the indefinite statewide mask mandate, among a slate of measures aimed at combatting the rising coronavirus case count. That potentially means “fines and penalties,” punishment Bennion’s office has thus far shied from.
Officials have tried the “carrot” approach, urging voluntary compliance with mask mandates, social distancing guidelines and more, Bennion said. And while most have abided by the guidelines, not everyone has, resulting in dramatic growth in recent weeks in the COVID-19 case count, threatening the ability of hospitals to care for the sick. “Now it feels there needs to be more of a stick to get things right,” Bennion said, with the specter of punishment, including fines, loss of operating licenses and more.
Accordingly, Herbert declared a state of emergency on Sunday and, together with the Utah Department of Health, announced the mask mandate, a prohibition on social gatherings involving those of different households and more. Notably, the governor cited the growing pressure on hospitals to care for the sick.
“The higher the numbers go, the more we’re limited and the less control we have over this pandemic,” Bennion said. “It’s a plea to the community to help us out.”
Social gatherings involving friends and families of different households are a big driver of the growing numbers, Bennion said. And Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, emphasized the import of individual families sticking to themselves, at least through Nov. 23, when that particular restriction is set to end.
“For the next two weeks, I urge you to only hang out with those who live in your household,” Dunn said at a press conference Monday with Herbert, called to offer more details of Sunday’s announcement. “This will be the start of us being able to save our healthcare system.”
Monitoring the various provisions of the order from Herbert will be the responsibility of a range of agencies, according to Bennion.
The Weber-Morgan Health Department will be particularly focused on overseeing and being on the lookout for larger-scale events, activities that draw big crowds. “They’re definitely discouraged the next two weeks,” Bennion said.
The Utah Board of Education and the Utah High School Activities Association will be tasked with assuring compliance with the temporary prohibition on many extracurricular activities at schools. The Utah System of Higher Education will work with colleges in implementing new COVID-19 testing requirements for students. The Utah Labor Commission will assist in making sure businesses comply with social-distancing and mask guidelines, Bennion said.
The Weber-Morgan Health Department receives complaints related to COVID-19 issues that run the gamut, and they will be funneled to the appropriate agency for handling.
Trevor Warner, spokesperson for the Davis County Health Department, said officials there are in the process of figuring out how they’ll respond to the new guidelines. “When it comes to enforcement, the health department is meeting with county attorneys and other county officials to determine our plan for enforcement,” he said.
PRAGMATIC CONSIDERATIONSBennion suspects the move from Herbert’s office was spurred by pragmatic considerations. “I think at this point given the numbers, he didn’t really have any other choice,” he said.
Indeed, the number of COVID-19 cases has steadily climbed in recent weeks, maxing out the ability of Utah hospitals to contend with the influx of new patients. Statewide, the rolling seven-day average number of new cases across Utah as of Sunday was 2,437 a day, up from 1,659 as of Nov. 1 and 383 as of Sept. 9, according to Utah Department of Health data.
In Weber and Morgan counties, 1,120 new COVID-19 cases came to light during the week ending last Saturday, up from 892 the week before and 192 from the week ending Sept. 12, according to Weber-Morgan Health Department figures. The Davis County Health Department reported 1,477 new cases for the week ending last Saturday, up from 1,010 a week earlier and 202 from the week ending Sept. 12, when numbers started a steady upward trajectory.
Warner echoed concerns that social gatherings are a major factor behind the rise in COVID-19 cases. “The new mandate makes it crystal clear — if someone isn’t a member of your immediate household, you shouldn’t be gathering with them. We need everyone to adhere to this, and adhere to all the other mandates/public health guidelines that have been put in place,” Warner said.