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Utah Legislature Has Final Word On COVID-19 Restrictions

SALT LAKE CITY — As case counts and hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to climb, mask mandates have returned in a couple of cities in the western United States.

In Los Angeles and Las Vegas, residents and visitors have to wear a mask for indoor events, even if they are vaccinated, in order to slow the transmission of the Delta variant.

But is that likely to return in Utah, or is it even possible?

“I think that going back to a mask mandate, or going back to restrictions, is the opposite direction from where we need to be going right now,” said Rep. Paul Ray, (R-Davis County).

He told KSL-TV it’s very unlikely Utah lawmakers would ever bring back a mask mandate, even as new cases rise. Ultimately, they have the authority over emergency health orders.

“It comes back to personal choice,” said Ray. “It’s not the government’s role to do this, especially with the vaccine. You educate people on the benefits of the vaccine. If you want to get vaccinated, you get vaccinated. If you don’t, then you take the risk of coming down with COVID.”

Utah’s emergency COVID-19 orders ended five months ago and the state legislature further restricted how they could be implemented.

So, if a city or county in Utah wanted to bring back a mask mandate, could they do that?

“Local health departments in Utah have the authority to issue mask mandates if they have the support of their elected officials in their jurisdiction, said Nicholas Rupp, spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

A county health department executive can issue a new emergency health declaration like a mask mandate as long as local elected officials, like the mayor and commission, are supportive.

But according to Evan Vickers, co-sponsor of Senate Bill 195, the legislature can terminate any order or restriction issued by a health department. So the legislature has that authority in Utah.

Rupp said they would never take that mask mandate option off the table, but the county health department is currently focused on vaccine distribution as the most effective tool to combat the pandemic.

“Right now, while we have a vaccine that is still very effective against all of the variants circulating, we are more likely to focus our efforts on promoting that more effective intervention,” said Rupp.

He said masks were a very effective tool in 2020 when there was no vaccine, but as of right now, Salt Lake County is not likely to re-implement a mask mandate.

“We’re going to focus on vaccination for now, as long as the vaccines continue to be as effective against the variants,” said Rupp.

Masks In Utah Schools

With some Utah schools returning in three weeks, back-to-school safety is a top priority.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new school masking recommendations.

The guidance from the organization of more than 65,000 primary care pediatricians is for students to wear masks in school, regardless of whether or not a student is vaccinated.

One reason for the recommendation: a significant portion of the student population isn’t eligible for vaccines.

“There is no law that prohibits a parent from having their student wear a mask at school,” said Jenny Johnson with the Utah Department of Health.

The state health department said that wearing a mask in school will most likely be a family decision.

“Is it technically possible that masks could be required in schools? Yes. Is it likely? No,” said Johnson. 

Another choice parents need to make: getting the vaccine for those 12 and older.

The health department said vaccinated students will have an advantage during contact tracing after a possible exposure. 

“A fully vaccinated person is not going to be asked to quarantine, and that’s going to be really important when school starts so kids can stay in school,” said Johnson. 

In May, the legislature passed a law prohibiting schools from implementing mask mandates for attendance and activities, but local health departments said may issue mask requirements, as long as they have permission from their local government body. 

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