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Utah governor’s small gathering criticized as mask-optional



SALT LAKE CITY — Nicholas Rupp and his husband saw something unusual Wednesday on their ritual evening walk: party lights and about 20 people in gowns and ties on the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion.

About half wore masks and several stood just a few feet apart, Rupp said, going against Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s public plea just hours earlier for all Utahns to wear masks and keep their distance. Rupp said the disconnect surprised him.

“I think it’s important for all our leaders at all levels of government to practice what they preach,” Rupp said, speaking on his own behalf and not that of the Salt Lake County Health Department where he is spokesman. He said the scene cast doubt on Herbert and other state leaders’ insistence that encouraging people to wear masks is sufficient.

Rupp’s criticism comes amid calls for a statewide mask mandate from Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and others. The state Thursday reported another seven Utahns — all Salt Lake County residents — have died from the virus, while 521 more statewide tested positive for COVID-19. The virus has claimed 267 lives in Utah.

Nearly half of the state’s 36,099 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus are in Salt Lake County, where Wilson on Wednesday released data indicating that a mask order has helped slow the spread of the virus. Herbert approved the county directive and a similar order for Summit County last month.

As of Thursday, the rolling seven-day average for new cases hovers at 598 per day, above Herbert’s Aug. 1 goal of less than 500. Herbert has said the state may impose further restrictions and a mask mandate if it does not meet the benchmark next week.

The governor’s office said the private Wednesday event honoring local artists followed state and county health guidelines.

“The guest list was small, and all in attendance maintained physical distance from one another,” Herbert’s office said in a statement. “Masks were required at the event.”

Herbert urges caution at group gatherings and recommends they take place outdoors so Utahns “can practice physical distancing — and that all attendees carry masks that may be worn when in close proximity with others,” the statement continued.

Spokeswoman Brooke Scheffler told the Deseret News Herbert wore a mask.

Rupp said he couldn’t be certain if those with bare faces were eating or drinking, among the activities that a countywide mask mandate makes exceptions for. But he said it seemed to illustrate there are some for whom rules don’t apply. His husband Michael Rupp snapped a picture from behind a gate, in which several are seen in masks but it’s not clear whether others are sporting any. Another photo shows a man’s uncovered face and a woman who appears to have a mask pulled below her mouth.

Nicholas Rupp posted the photo on his personal, private Twitter page, writing “Way to walk the walk, @GovHerbert.”

Michael Rupp recalled the guests did not appear to be consuming any food or drinks while chatting in small groups.

“It was pretty ironic, hypocritical actually,” Michael Rupp said. “From what I observed, it seemed like a party where wearing face masks was optional.”

The couple said each caterer and officer providing security seemed to have face coverings; neither spotted the governor.

Earlier this month, Herbert signed an executive order for people to cover their faces inside state facilities, but his directive makes no mention of outdoor spaces. He has also required masks for K-12 schools reopening next month.

His lieutenant governor took to Twitter to remind Utahns to wear masks over the Pioneer Day weekend, saying the data from Salt Lake County and other communities “is just too clear.”

“Just assume everyone has it and remember: Outside is always better than inside. Shorter is always better than longer. Mask is always better than no mask,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox wrote, noting a person is very contagious just before showing symptoms.

The daily case counts

The seven Utah deaths reported Thursday were under Wednesday’s record-tying 10.

All seven deaths — four women and three men — reported Thursday occurred in Salt Lake County, and all but one were residents of long-term care facilities. The majority were older than 85, though one man was listed as being between 45 and 64 and a woman who died was age 65-84. One woman in the 85 and over group was hospitalized at the time of her death, the health department said.

The Utah Department of Health reported the total of 36,099 confirmed out of more than 485,000 tests. Statewide, 210 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, out of a total of 2,150 hospitalized since the beginning of the outbreak.

The number of cases considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses is 23,093.

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 17,353; 1,135 hospitalized; 152 deaths.
  • Utah County, 6,753; 317 hospitalized; 31 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 2,594; 141 hospitalized; 21 deaths.
  • Davis County, 2,520; 145 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,000; 78 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 2,201; 137 hospitalized; 24 deaths.
  • Summit County, 651; 52 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • San Juan County, 553; 73 hospitalized; 19 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 498; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 463; 22 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 318; 19 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 128; 8 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 67; 3 hospitalized; 0 deaths

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