Local governments and law enforcement agencies across the state scrambled Monday to figure out how exactly to enforce Gov. Gary Herbert’s new COVID-19 rules mandating masks and banning social gatherings.
Most agencies reported learning of the changes the same time as the general public, during the governor’s Sunday night TV address.
The Salt Lake County Health Department reported they have no legal authority to issue fines, but they can work directly with the district attorney to present evidence of flagrant violations.
Police do have the authority to issue citations and fines, but health officials don’t expect police to devote considerable resources to enforcing health rules.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Monday he is ready to prosecute violators if the situation arises.
Clearly, voluntary compliance is putting us at a higher risk right now than we’ve ever been as a state,” he said.
Gill said there are teeth in the law and people willfully endangering the community may see criminal and/or civil penalties.
“That’s not a political statement, that’s just the law,” he said.
Are there guides for who might receive a penalty? What sort of offense would rise to that level?
“So it’s a case-by-case, business-by-business, issue-by-issue standard,” Gill said.
Jail time or fine amounts would depend on a variety of factors.
“How compliant have they been, how cooperative have they been, how blatant have they been, how deliberate have they been in their violation?” Gill said.
In Utah County, where there’s been significant resistance to masks and other COVID rules, Sheriff Mike Smith indicated he’s not going to enforce the rules.
Smith was an outspoken critic of proposed mask mandates in September. He issued a lengthy statement at the time detailing his concerns.
While not opposed to masks specifically, he didn’t like that the government placed the burden on police to enforce.
I find it interesting the nation is demanding police reform, yet every time there is any crisis the response is, pass a law and let the police worry about it. Then, the only resource provided to the police is arrest or citation. I believe we can do better than that,” Smith said.
Multiple requests for interviews were denied.
Department spokesperson Sgt. Spencer Canon said Monday that nothing in the last two months has changed the sheriff’s mind and he did not intend to say any more on the matter.
Asked about Smith’s position, a spokesperson for the governor said that law enforcement isn’t the only means of issuing fines. The Utah Department of Health is also authorized to collect fines.
Provo City spokesperson Nicole Martin said Monday people shouldn’t brush off the rules about masks or social gatherings.
There certainly are teeth in this order,” she said.
But the city doesn’t intend to bite very often.
“Our focus will be in line with the state to uphold the spirit of the law,” Martin said.
Provo’s police department says the city’s mask mandate didn’t adversely affect their operation.
“We received useful tips, but we did not see the tattle-tell culture that we were concerned about,” Martin said.
Provo police have reached out to organizers of large parties to explain rules and most people have adjusted their plans accordingly.
We’ve certainly seen a reduction of the number of parties in Provo, and I do think that is directly attributable to the proactive approach that the police department has taken,” she said.