Gov. Gary Herbert’s office on Wednesday confirmed the penalty, but also said it is up to school administrators to decide whether to press criminal charges on those who defy the mask mandate without a legitimate medical exemption.
“It’s enforced on a district and superintendent level,” spokesperson Anna Lehnardt told The Salt Lake Tribune. “But we’re not thinking, ‘Let’s slap a bunch of kids with misdemeanors.'”
The charge for the violator, including those in kindergarten, would be a class B misdemeanor punishable up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000—the same level of punishment for any violation of a public health order under Utah state law.
The primary reasoning behind the penalty is to keep teachers safe when schools reopen amid the ongoing pandemic, Lehnardt said.
Herbert, who declined to impose a statewide face covering mandate, ordered in July that all students, teachers, staff, and visitors must wear a mask while in a school building or on school buses. The order, which goes into effect this month, applies to all of Utah’s 41 public school districts as well as public charters.
When asked on Thursday about the criminal penalties, the Republican governor reaffirmed that leaders of individual schools would decide how to enforce his mandate in order to protect teachers, whom he said are more vulnerable to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus than students because of age or health conditions.
“We certainly can minimize the risk and mitigate the chances of you catching the virus at school, which we’re trying to do,” he said during his monthly press conference. “One of the best ways, the most effective, inexpensive ways to do that is have everybody wear a face covering.”
Herbert added that parents who do not want their children to comply with his mask mandate when returning to school are “a little bit irrational.”
“I think these same people might get on an airplane and say they’re not going to fasten their seat belts,” he said. “And they may be invited to get off the plane if that’s the case.”
Some state lawmakers have pushed back against Herbert’s mask order, arguing that it is overly restrictive.
“Of course, we need to protect our teachers, especially those that are compromised,” said Republican state Rep. Mark Strong during an education committee meeting, reported Desert News. “So, how do we address that? And are we being too restrictive, especially with this young population that has very, very, very low risk?”