SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is expanding face mask requirements to all schools, he announced Thursday morning, but he did not make a general requirement statewide.

© Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Shoppers wear masks at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020.

His decision on masks comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Utah — another 600 added Thursday — and a day after two top legislative leaders said they opposed a statewide mandate for wearing masks.

The latest data released Thursday morning shows 27,356 people in Utah have tested positive with the novel coronavirus, and 205 people have died of the disease, four more than reported Wednesday by the Utah Department of Health. The number of positives rose 601 cases one day after the state reported its highest daily number of new cases with 722.

The department also noted that the rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 585 per day. The seven-day average for percent of positive laboratory tests is 9.9%.

Herbert for months has stopped short of mandating masks, saying he hopes people will choose to do the “right thing” by wearing a mask to protect the smaller but more vulnerable population, including people over age 65 and those with underlying medical conditions who are more susceptible to severe complications with COVID-19.

Nearly half of Utah’s deaths caused by the virus, 97 of them, have been among people between the ages of 65 and 84, with a quarter of the overall death toll — 46 — being people over age 85.

And, as of Thursday, almost 67% of intensive care beds in hospitals throughout Utah are being occupied with COVID-19 patients. Overwhelming the hospital and health care system is something public health and government officials have been concerned about since the pandemic illness hit Utah in mid-March.

Utah’s legislative leadership has voiced opposition on any kind of mask mandate.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said it “raises questions on enforcement and punishment,” among other issues.

“While (masks) pose a minor inconvenience, I am committed to leading by example, as have many legislators,” Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said on Wednesday. He said “local officials are better positioned to make data-driven decisions regarding face masks that are tailored to their communities.”

In fact, Herbert has granted permission for various local jurisdictions to require masks in public.

Public health orders requiring masks have been issued in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, the city of Springdale, and at all state buildings and agencies.

Some, including the Utah Hospital Association, believe requiring masks is the only way to contain the virus, while others more adamantly believe a mandate would infringe on their rights.

Herbert is getting pressure from both sides of the issue, including from business leaders trying to stave off another shutdown.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has warned that if cases don’t soon plateau and even decrease, it would require backsteps on business and societal restrictions, perhaps even going back into quarantine.

“While we all would prefer not to wear masks, this is an opportunity for Utahns to unite and make a difference in our state’s fight against this virus. We have overcome difficult times before, and we will do it again,” Adams said on Wednesday. “As we commit to temporarily changing habits and doing our part by wearing masks in public, we can decrease the rate of COVID-19 cases and save lives.”

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district on Thursday: Salt Lake County, 13,646; 920 hospitalized; 124 deaths. Utah County, 4,988; 251 hospitalized; 27 deaths. Southwest Utah, 1,881; 115 hospitalized; 15 deaths. Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,697; 62 hospitalized; 3 deaths. Davis County, 1,644; 101 hospitalized; 6 deaths. Weber-Morgan, 1,396; 94 hospitalized; 14 deaths. Summit County, 553; 47 hospitalized; 1 death. Wasatch County, 442; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths. San Juan County, 441; 60 hospitalized; 11 deaths. Tooele County, 315; 12 hospitalized; 0 deaths. Central Utah, 243; 14 hospitalized; 0 deaths. TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 63; 4 hospitalized; 0 deaths. Southeast Utah, 47; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.

This story will be updated.

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