Utah Legislature overturns mask orders in Salt Lake, Summit counties

Jan 21, 2022, 11:54 AM | Updated: 8:06 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House of Representatives voted Friday to overturn mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

The joint resolution to terminate the mask orders, including the student mask mandate in Salt Lake City, passed by a 45-29 vote.

SJR3 passed the Senate with a 22-5 vote on Tuesday, the first day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session.

Because it’s a joint resolution, it does not need Gov. Spencer Cox’s signature to become law, and Cox does not have the power to veto it. The Utah Legislature gave itself the ability to overturn local health orders by joint resolution in SB195, also known as Utah’s COVID-19 “endgame” bill, which was signed into law last year.

House Speaker Brad Wilson confirmed to KSL NewsRadio that many members of the House Majority Caucus asked to have an opportunity to vote on this, and the House has been quietly working with the Salt Lake County Council to make this happen.

“They’re good people — they’re just having a hard time getting all on the same page,” Wilson told KSL Newsradio. “The widespread belief in our caucus is that masks make a lot of sense for people, but we believe it’s an individual choice if they want them.”

During the floor debate Friday, Republicans argued mask wearing shouldn’t be up to the government.

“Mandates seem to be counterproductive,” Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said. “They’re divisive. They make personal health decisions political.”

“Mandates like this, and these, have caused increased polarization, increased public distrust, and have accelerated the ever increasing burnout people are feeling from pandemic restrictions,” Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said. 

The House Sponsor said removing the mandate does not remove someone’s ability to wear a mask.

“To people who are mocking individuals who wear masks, who are being rude and combative to our frontline healthcare workers, knock it off. We are better than this,” Pierucci said. 

Democrats said that the 30-day mandate is almost over anyway and that masks are needed to control the surge.

“It sets an example that we as citizens care for each other,” Rep. Clare Collard, D-Magna, said. “Our teachers are tired. Our healthcare workers are exhausted. I urge all of you to vote no on this resolution.” 

“Have you lost a family member in COVID? I have. My husband and my mother both died within the last six months,” Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said. 

Moss said the issue of mask wearing is personal to her, and that lawmakers should be thinking about schools.

“A teacher I know is pregnant. Another one has children at home who are immunocompromised. Do we not care about their health and safety?” she said. 

There were also mixed feelings among Republican and Democratic senators Tuesday.

Republican senators supporting the resolution said wearing a mask should be a personal decision.

“People do not like it when we make decisions for them. They just don’t,” said Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton. “Utahns should be free to wear a mask or get a vaccine, or stay home, but the government should not be mandating or dictating what businesses should be enforcing, especially when it comes to personal health decisions.”

However, Democratic senators who voted against the resolution said the Legislature should leave mask mandates up to local control.

Utah Senate votes to overturn Salt Lake County mask mandate, among others

“If you believe in local control, the county has decided that this is in their best interest,” said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights.

“It kind of annoys me, to be honest with you, that we are wasting time in this debate when it’s set to expire automatically, and we have skyrocketing cases,” added Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Sandy.

If the Legislature did nothing, the mask mandate in Salt Lake County would end in two weeks while Summit County’s would end on Feb. 21.

The Utah Democratic Party released the following statement after the resolution was passed:

“This resolution is a complete and total affront to the role of local elected officials in making decisions that are right for their communities,” said Utah Democratic Party Chair Diane Lewis. “With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing across the state, leaders in Salt Lake and Summit Counties, as well as Salt Lake City, used the authority given to them by the legislature just last year to institute temporary mask mandates, at the recommendation of local health departments, that will help mitigate the ongoing public health crisis. But Republicans at the Capitol decided that they know better than the experts and local leaders, and they bypassed the usual committee process to unilaterally impose their will on the people of Utah without even allowing a public hearing on the issue. The Republican Party cannot be trusted to respect the decisions of voters and the local leaders they’ve elected.”

Utah House Democrats said the joint resolution “is a slap in the face” to Utah’s health care workers who are “still struggling to save lives during this public health crisis.”

“It is disrespectful to Utahns who are trying to do their part to follow public health guidelines to weather this pandemic,” they added. “Despite the misleading rhetoric, the CDC still says high-quality masks ARE an effective tool against spreading this virus.  Other areas that have experienced omicron variant surges have thankfully seen cases and hospitalizations subside after a few weeks. Now is a time for leadership and unity, not aggressive, divisive fights, targeting local efforts to protect the community during this temporary crisis.  This move feels cynical and pessimistic at a time when Utahns are calling out for collective leadership.”

Summit County Health Director Dr. Phil Bondurant said the county’s order is terminated, effective immediately.

“The decision to implement Public Health Order 2022-01 in Summit County followed all legal requirements and was given extensive consideration by local elected officials and stakeholders,” he said. “I remain firm in my belief that the actions taken by Summit County and the Summit County Health Department over the last two years have saved lives.”

“Although the outcome of the vote regarding SJR3 provides a different direction than our Public Health Order, I still believe the action taken to require masks in public places, including schools, was the right one for Summit County. The ongoing omicron surge has impacted every aspect of our lives at home, at work, in our schools, and our businesses. We ask our residents and visitors to remain diligent to protect themselves and their loved ones. Our advisory message has not changed because the best practices have not changed: stay home if you are sick, and get vaccinated or boosted if you have not done so, and wear a mask in public indoor spaces to protect the health of others.”

Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn said, “Effectively protecting our most vulnerable community members—and ensuring that our businesses and essential services have the staff necessary to operate — requires layering our various prevention tools; this includes being up to date on vaccine, staying home when ill, and wearing a respirator mask in public during this surge. We encourage Salt Lake County residents and visitors to do these things, regardless of whether or not a mandate is in place.”

Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham also released a statement Friday: 

“I am dedicated to keeping our community open and our residents healthy. As our workforce diminishes and hospitals fill with COVID patients, I will continue to look for ways to help our community with this local issue.   After discussing the need to help with schools, first responders, healthcare and businesses with the Speaker yesterday, it was disappointing to see the State interfere with local decisions dedicated to the well-being of Salt Lake County residents, without any other solutions offered.  I will continue to look for solutions to getting us through the next few weeks and urge people to take the necessary precautions to protect the health of you and your families.”

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Utah Legislature overturns mask orders in Salt Lake, Summit counties