Opinion: Six months later, the Legislature’s end to mask mandates looks foolish

Utah lawmakers set “endgame” metrics that were a fiction, as relevant to the end of the pandemic as a halftime score in a football game.

Six months ago, as the Utah Legislature ended its annual session, I predicted one group was going to look foolish eventually — either lawmakers who decided arbitrarily to end the state’s mask mandate on April 10, or the health professionals who were warning of a possible new wave of COVID-19.

You can decide the outcome, after considering some evidence.

The bill that prompted that column, HB294, was referred to as the “endgame bill.” It was to be a roadmap, of sorts, for how Utah would emerge from the pandemic and return to normal life — a hedge against health officials deciding to keep restrictions going endlessly, or until cases hit zero.

It restricted a statewide mask mandate to gatherings of 50 or more and allowed it to continue for K-12 school students, but only until July 1. It required that all public health orders concerning a “public health emergency declared by the Department of Health or a local health department” would be terminated when a set of COVID-19 measurement thresholds were met.

Specifically, these were: A statewide 14-day case rate of less than 191 per 100,000; an occupancy rate of intensive care unit beds of less than 15% for COVID-19 patients; and when the state of Utah had received (not administered) at least 1.63 million vaccine doses.  

Back then, numbers were dwindling and health officials seemed to be the only ones warning that the danger had not yet passed. 

What a difference six months makes.

As I write this, according to the state coronavirus website, the current statewide 14-day case rate is 674.5 per 100,000. From various reports, ICU beds are between 95% and 100% full, and Intermountain Healthcare has announced it is postponing all surgeries, including urgent ones, at 13 hospitals because it is overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. 

And this despite Utah having not just obtained vaccines, but fully vaccinated 1.59 million people.

Clearly, the “endgame” posed by metrics reached last spring was a fiction, about as meaningless as the halftime score of a football game. As for April 10 and July 1 of this year, they were just two more dates in the middle of a pandemic that has ebbed and flowed.

Contrary to popular belief, the bill did not once and for all end mask mandates. It allowed local health departments to require masks if they received the approval of their county legislative body, and provided that the metrics mentioned above had been exceeded.

Mask mandates still are possible. In practicality, however, the bill made them much more difficult to impose. In August, the Salt Lake County Health Department ordered a mask mandate for students in grades K-6. The County Council, which is the department’s relevant legislative body, voted it down, 6-3.

“For now, the evidence does not warrant heavy-handed government intervention,” councilwoman Dea Theodore said at the time.

So, the metrics seem to work only on the way down. Nothing is triggered when the numbers rise again. Only Salt Lake City has imposed a school mask mandate — a legally questionable move under the new law, but one no one has challenged.  

School districts in Salt Lake County report numbers that show far less than 1% of their student bodies having tested positive. But the overall statewide numbers aren’t as encouraging. On Tuesday, for example, the Department of Health reported 1,724 new cases, of which 22%, or 371, were school-aged children. In recent weeks, children have been infected at much higher rates than previously in the pandemic. Although the death rate among children is small, some of them are experiencing long-term side effects. It’s fair to ask, if a statewide mask mandate was justified a year ago, why not now?

Politicians have a natural bias toward the feelings of their constituents — the people whose support they need for reelection. The most vocal of these in many parts of the state say they oppose mask mandates.

Health officials have a natural bias toward public safety. It’s easy to imagine this being taken to extremes out of an abundance of caution, but it would be hard to find evidence of that happening during this pandemic.

A new poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that people are split on the wisdom of the “endgame” bill, with 44% favoring its effect on mask mandates and 43% against.

But when it comes to who should have control over enacting another mask mandate, only 18% picked a state lawmaker or the governor, and 53% preferred a state or local health department.

“Foolish” is such a loaded word. Most lawmakers I know are not fools.

Let’s just say that trying to limit the tools available to fight this pandemic last spring was grossly, and even dangerously, premature.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.