My Views on Provo’s Mask Ordinance
Updated: Sep 10
Recently, I vetoed the City Council’s mask ordinance regarding the wearing of masks within Provo’s boundaries. Although I explained my reasons a number of times leading up to the veto, I continue to receive letters and emails asking me why I did so (as well as many notes thanking me for the veto). So I wanted to take one more chance to explain my reasons. (As you may know, the City Council promptly over-rode my veto making the ordinance law. Now that it is the law, I am committed to upholding that law in good faith.)
I believe the city council members and I have a lot of common ground, including on masks. In my veto letter to the council, I wrote the following:
I believe that you and I have the same destination in our sights: a safe and vibrant Provo through coming months. We also share a desire to see the highest possible rate of compliance with state health guidelines.
Our difference is over the right path to fulfill our desire to get to that destination. You have voted for the new path of a mandate, in the form of a law that requires people in Provo to wear face masks and penalizes noncompliance. My strong preference, and that many others, is that we stay on the path that has brought us this far. Only months ago, no one in Provo was wearing a mask. Today, most Provo residents seem to be compliant with government health guidelines, including guidelines on masks. They have done this without compulsion. And although it is the citizens who deserve the lion’s share of the credit, my staff and I have spent an enormous amount of energy trying to encourage and foster a culture of voluntary compliance with those health guidelines.
As I vetoed the ordinance, here were some of my main concerns with it:
First, to my knowledge not a single major community partner in this valley (besides you as a council) had asked or encouraged me to enter a mask mandate—not a chamber of commerce, not an institution of higher education, not a mayor or legislator or county commissioner. Nor had the local organization that is comprised of health professionals who are charged full time with the mission of monitoring and ensuring the health of the citizens of this area, the Utah County Health Department. On the contrary, several of the above had asked me not to issue a mask mandate. While I greatly value my relationship with the city council members and wish we had been more united on the best means to an end here, I also had my eyes on our relationships with other community partners.
Second, I didn’t want to burden our police officers with this ordinance. In my veto letter, I wrote the following:
Inevitably, this law will lead to calls to our dispatch office asking for enforcement of the mask requirement. In this moment, do we seek more tricky police-citizen encounters, more situations to de-escalate? I place a lot of value on the well-being of our police officers and on their goal to build, not erode, trust with citizens, especially in these already tumultuous times. In the same vein, I worry that the last thing the citizens of this community need right now is anything that would foster a tattle-tale culture over masks.
As we all knew it would, the mask ordinance has indeed led to calls about mask wearing to our dispatch professionals, and our police have been responding to reports of non-compliance. Although our police chief publicly had told the city council he preferred no mask ordinance, he is a professional and is doing his best, in good faith, to enforce the ordinance appropriately.
Third, I believed the right path to a safe and vibrant Provo through coming months was a path that treated citizens as the trustworthy and compassionate partners they are. In their public deliberations, one of the City Council members observed, perhaps a little wistfully, that the culture in Japan is highly accepting of governmental mask mandates, whereas our culture is not. There is truth to that observation. Many Americans, perhaps particularly here in this land of the Freedom Festival, have a “don’t tread on me” bent that any observer knows is alive and well. A significant portion of those who responded to the city council’s survey about the ordinance said they believe a mask mandate is “an extreme overreach of governmental power.” Given that element within our culture, was a mandate the wisest and surest path to a safe and vibrant Provo? And speaking of our culture, I suggested we keep in mind that we were talking about the folks with the highest rate of volunteerism in the nation. Provo residents are good people who, through no compulsion, love to do the right things out of the goodness of their hearts. With the demographic we have here, which path would get us to the highest level of compliance? A law requiring masks or asking and encouraging people to wear them? I believed that the path of educating and encouraging residents was the better path and would lead to higher compliance and a safer and more vibrant Provo than a mask ordinance would.
Interestingly, only days after my veto was overridden, I was sent data collected by the state health department indicating that when masks were “requested” by businesses owners, 93.5% of customers wore a mask. When business owners “required” a mask, 90.62% wore one. That’s not a huge difference and one take away is that Utahns are pretty good about wearing masks when a business either requests or requires them. But it’s also noteworthy that slightly more people wore a mask when one was simply requested than when it was required.
To recap, the city council and I have had the same destination in mind; we differed over the path to get there. Now that a law is on the books requiring the wearing of masks, the police department and I are committed to appropriately enforcing that law. For anyone who felt the ordinance was the wrong approach, I hope you will be civil in your communications with City Council members about it. I hope that each one of us, regardless of where we stand on the mask ordinance, will do our parts to help foster civility and harmony among our neighbors. In my mind, even in challenging times like these, we can’t take our eyes off the goal keeping the culture of Provo positive, welcoming and friendly.