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SLCO Health Department may punish businesses, won’t issue misdemeanors to customers without masks

Posted at 9:16 PM, Jul 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-04 23:16:19-04

It's been one week since a public mask mandate has gone into effect in Salt Lake County and Summit County.

Although individuals could theoretically be cited with a misdemeanor for refusing to wear a mask, the Salt Lake County Health Department tells FOX 13 nobody has been cited.

“We’ve never had any intention of enforcing via citation on individuals,” said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesperson for the department.

Businesses, however, could be punished if they continually refuse to enforce the county’s mask mandate.

“Our first step of enforcement will be education,” Rupp said. “We’ve called a number of businesses and made sure they’re aware of the face-covering requirement… We have made a few educational visits.”

If a business were to be found to ignore the “education,” the Salt Lake County Health Department may then issue a “notice of violation,” which is a formal written notice that the business has violated a written health order.

So far the Salt Lake County Health Department has not issued a notice of violation.

“If a business were to ignore a notice of violation, then there could be criminal or civil charges,” Rupp said.

Some businesses say they are struggling to enforce the mask mandate and refuse to put their employees in a dangerous position by causing a confrontation.

Kirk Smith, who shops at the Walmart in South Jordan, said he has observed a “fair amount” of people inside the store who were not wearing masks.

“I spoke with a loss prevention associate who happened to answer the phone,” Smith said. “(He) told me that employees are only allowed to ask or suggest that customers are wearing masks, and are not allowed to actually or effectively enforce the requirement. Considering the fact that it has been legally mandated in our country to do so, this is ludicrous and unbelievably irresponsible of the store management.”

Casey Staheli, a spokesperson for Walmart, sent the following statement to FOX 13.

“Maintaining customer and associate safety remains our top priority," Staheli wrote. "We encourage customers to be especially mindful of one another during this unprecedented time and adhere to recommendations and decisions made by local officials regarding the use of protective facial coverings while in public spaces.”

Staheli did not comment on whether Walmart employees should be turning away customers without masks.

The National Retail Federation, which represents Walmart and other businesses, sent FOX 13 the following statement.

“Most (retailers) are instructing their employees to avoid confrontations in order to avoid escalation of disputes,” wrote Bill Thorne, the senior vice president of communications and public affairs. “It’s very common in retail to instruct employees not to try to stop or chase shoplifters in order to avoid an unnecessary risk of violence, and many retailers have applied the same theory to masks… Many retailers have said they do not want to become the face mask police, and that if states and local government want mask requirements strictly enforced they should provide law enforcement officers to do so.”

Smith said he was unhappy with the response.

“Are they willing to compromise the health and safety of their employees and customers because of a few bad apples that have caused some problems?” Smith said. “Does that negate the fact that we are dealing with a global pandemic that is costing thousands of lives a day?”

Detective Greg Wilking, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City Police Department, said the Salt Lake County Health Department would likely be the only agency to issue citations.

“It’s the discretion of the business to decide if they want to help the person or not,” Wilking said. “They can refuse the right to serve anyone… Businesses can certainly call us if they need help getting somebody off their property.”

Rupp said businesses in Salt Lake County are expected to treat customers without a mask the same as they would treat a customer with no shirt or shoes.

“Asking a business to enforce rules in their establishment is not new,” Rupp said. “We’re not asking them to be confrontational… denying service is a reasonable response.”

Stephanie Miller, a spokesperson for Harmons Grocery, said the supermarket chain has not faced many difficulties since announcing its own company-wide mask mandate.

“There’s always a few that have been difficult,” Miller said. “We’ve received a lot of feedback from people who are appreciative that Harmons is taking safety precautions to guard their safety.”

Harmons Grocery stores outside of Salt Lake County and Summit County will enforce mask mandates starting on July 5th, Miller said.

“I don’t recall seeing anybody without a mask,” shopper Joe Perry said. “I’m not into being very harsh, but I think it’s not unreasonable (to issue a misdemeanor) if you are a repeat offender.”