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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A county commission was set to discuss masks in schools. Then a maskless crowd showed up to protest.

On July 15, the Utah County Commission postponed a meeting on masks in K-12 schools after protesters packed the room without wearing masks. (Video: Utah County Government/ Youtube)

The Utah County Commission was supposed to be talking about masks Wednesday — but among the dozens of spectators packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the audience, there were few in sight.

“This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing,” Tanner Ainge, the commission’s chair, said over the microphone, as the crowd erupted into boos. “We are supposed to be physically distancing, wearing masks."

One person yelled that Ainge was trying to silence them. Another held up a sign that read, “Let kids be kids, no masks."

But he and another member of the all-Republican council were resolute: The lack of adherence to public health guidelines meant the meeting — on a statewide order requiring masks in schools — would have to be postponed just moments after it started.

After months of partisan debate, it seemed the political tenor on face coverings was starting to align with scientific consensus this week. Republican governors, Mormon leadership and Walmart all came out in support of masks as a necessary precaution against the novel coronavirus, which has killed at least 134,000 people in the United States.

But as parents and teachers look ahead to the new school year, the scene out of Provo, Utah, indicates that some Americans are not done putting up a fight to keep their faces exposed. This time around, they’re waging a war about their kids’ classrooms.

“This mandate for the children to wear masks is baloney,” Cynthia Harding, a Provo resident who attended a protest before the county meeting, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We have the right to make our own choices.”

Doctors and public health officials have insisted for months that wearing face masks in public is the most effective way to contain the pandemic in situations where social distancing is impossible, including on crowded school buses or in busy hallways.

Republican officials in some of the most conservative states in the country have heeded that call. Last week, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) said students and teachers in most school districts can return to classes in person on the condition that everyone covers their faces.

Yet in Utah County, which spans three school districts just south of Salt Lake City, Commissioner Bill Lee pushed back. This week, he introduced a proposal to ask state health officials for a “compassionate exemption” from the mask requirement, suggesting that parents, teachers and administrators should have more authority over face masks themselves.

“We’ve got to have a lot more conversation on this,” he told The Washington Post in an interview. "[The order] doesn’t really fit the functionality of schools. … We’ve got to have the ability to be compassionate with others.”

In an email to constituents this week, he invited them to “peacefully express their concerns” about the mandate outside the county government center in Provo on Wednesday, a half-hour before the commission was set to meet.

“I don’t like government mandates,” Lee told the cheering crowd, according to the Tribune. Although he showed up to the event with a light blue face covering, he promptly removed it once the protesters shouted for him to “take the mask off!"

As the meeting started, protesters wearing Trump 2020 hats and hoisting small American flags poured into the small boardroom. Tape had been laid on chairs and on the ground to maintain social distancing, but the demonstrators stripped it off, sitting side-by-side and gathering against the walls.

Ainge, the commission’s chair, ended the meeting a little more than a minute after it began. But even after he got up and left, the protesters got up one by one to rail against the face mask order, rattling off a catalogue of reasons they opposed it.

One mother, Carly Lisonbee, charged that government officials wanted “to override a parent’s decision over what they think is best for their child,” according to the Provo Daily Herald. Penny Roberts, a second-grade teacher, said she feared that masks would make it more difficult for teachers to determine if students were facing abuse at home.

Ainge, who said he moved to cut the meeting short because of health concerns, told The Post in an interview that the crowd had been directing their message at the wrong government body.

“This had no business being on our agenda,” he said. “The county has nothing to do with this. It would be like the school board deciding how much money to give to the sheriff’s department.”

While Lee and some of the protesters raised concerns about how the mask mandate might affect students with disabilities or be enforced on playgrounds and in lunchrooms, Ainge said state health authorities were working with school districts to flesh out details.

In other parts of the country, the surging pandemic means students may not even make it to school in person in the fall. School systems in Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Diego have said the virus is spreading so rapidly they will start the year entirely online. In Utah, Salt Lake City is poised to do the same.

But amid the uncertainty and debate over what classes may look like this fall, some parents seem unwilling to cede any ground.

As he left the meeting, Ainge stopped outside the county government building to speak with some protesters. One woman became so upset while challenging him, the Deseret News reported, that she appeared to have a panic attack and had to be transported to the hospital in an ambulance.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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