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School mask mandate, sports on agenda for Utah governor, legislative leaders

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Gov. Gary Herbert removes his mask as he prepares to answer questions during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert’s school mask mandate — as well as whether there’s a way for the Salt Lake City School District’s student athletes to play team sports given the city’s more restrictive COVID-19 risk level — are among the issues the governor is expected to discuss with legislative leaders Wednesday.

Herbert’s meeting with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, comes as schools around the state are readying their plans for reopening doors in the fall — except for Salt Lake City, where online learning may continue because of the city’s orange or moderate-risk status.

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Despite a recent spike in coronavirus cases, the rest of the state has been moved to yellow (low-risk) or green (“new normal”) risk categories. However, Salt Lake City remains in the higher category at the request of Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who said some neighborhoods have the state’s highest rates of the virus.

The GOP governor — who ordered last week that students, faculty and staff all wear masks on buses and in schools but stopped short of extending the mandate to all Utahns — is now being asked by Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee for a “compassionate exemption,” with a rally planned before Wednesday’s County Commission meeting in Provo.

That puts masks back on the agenda for state leaders, Adams said, although Herbert’s office said he has no plans to provide an exemption from the mask mandate to any county or school district.

Both the Senate president and the House speaker had come out against a statewide mask mandate before Herbert’s decision, saying encouragement is better than demanding compliance. Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, as well as Springdale just outside Zion National Park, have been allowed to mandate masks when its residents are out in public.

Adams, who discussed making masks mandatory in schools with the governor before it was issued, said he raised concerns about flexibility that were addressed, but is willing to “listen to everyone,” including those in Utah County who want an exemption.

“We’ll take what input they give us,” the Senate president said. “The point that I think everyone is hopefully committed to, or behind, is we need to slow the spread, which helps take the pressure off of our medical providers and helps people stay more healthy. Then with that, we can keep our economy going.”

But Adams stands by his opposition to a statewide mask mandate, saying he hopes a new public service campaign to urge Utahns to wear masks will accomplish that goal once it rolls out. He said the campaign was supposed to have already launched and now may not be ready for a week or so.

“Will they listen to a mandate or will they listen to more information and actually be committed themselves?” Adams asked, once Utahns see sports figures, community leaders and others featured in the campaign. “Let people be convinced this is the right thing to do.”

On Tuesday, House and Senate Democrats sent a letter to the governor, urging him to issue a statewide mandate for masks and other protective actions at high-risk facilities, such as long-term care centers, where nearly half of the state’s COVID-19-related deaths have occurred.

Saying they agree with health care providers that have asked for a mask mandate, the members of the minority party told the governor that “if you are unwilling to take that decisive action to save lives, we ask you to at least show leadership in providing this common sense measure to protect those most at risk in our state.”

Adams said the effect of Salt Lake City’s orange risk phase on high school sports is something that needs to be addressed and will be talked about in the meeting with the governor. That may mean redefining what that risk level means for schools, including sports.

“You’ve got athletes that are potentially college bound and they want to play. Is there a way to allow them to play? Or do we allow the kids in the rest of Salt Lake County and Utah and Davis counties to play, and Weber County, and not the kids in Salt Lake City? That will be an issue, too,” he said.

“The other school districts are finding a way to have them play safe. There ought to be a way to have them play safe, whatever school district they’re in,” Adams said, adding “it seems strange that we’re able to allow a Real (Salt Lake soccer) game” and other sporting events to be held.

What that means for reopening Salt Lake City School District classrooms, however, is not clear.

“What I’m saying is, we want kids in the classroom, so we’ve got to figure this out,” he said. “I think we’ll have a discussion. That’s a good topic, isn’t it? I can’t even answer that. I’m not sure. It’s come up and I think there’s concern about it.”

Yándary Chatwin, spokeswoman for the school district, said “there definitely is a concern. Under orange, which is what we’re in currently, it’s very limited what we can do.” She said teams have been practicing while maintaining safety measures but can’t participate in sports as usual.

“We’ve heard from a lot of parents who are worried,” especially about student athletes headed into their senior year who are seeking college sports scholarships, Chatwin said. “But we’ve also got families that are dealing with the death of loved ones from COVID-19.”

She said because Salt Lake City’s west-side neighborhoods are so hard hit, “they’re dealing with this in a way that no one else across the state even might be. So our main priority is to ensure that we are keeping the safety of the students, but also the adults, the staff members, in mind.”

There are discussions underway, however, with the Utah High School Activities Association, “trying to find a way to figure out how Salt Lake athletes can participate. We’re open to ideas, of course. If someone is able to come up with a really great solution, we want to give kids as many opportunities” as possible, she said.

The question of what schools in the district do this fall is anticipated to be discussed at the Salt Lake City School Board’s next meeting on July 21, Chatwin said, since school districts are supposed to have plans in place by Aug. 1.

Another special session of the Utah Legislature is planned for Aug. 20, according to Adams, to deal with “hot spots and unintended consequences” as a result of reducing the state’s $20 billion budget last month to some $19.2 billion to deal with the virus’ impact on revenues. He said there will no doubt be more COVID-19-related legislation as well.