SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson haven’t ruled out enacting their own citywide or countywide mask mandates after the statewide mask mandate expires April 10.
But depending on whether Utah still hits certain benchmarks related to COVID-19 case rates, hospitalization rates, or vaccination allotments, they may not have the power to do so under the Utah Legislature’s pandemic “endgame” bill. Gov. Spencer Cox has signaled support for the bill after he negotiated for the April 10 statewide mask mandate lift date, buying a few more weeks with lawmakers initially poised to approve the bill with an immediate effective date and a veto-proof majority.
Mendenhall and Wilson, Democratic mayors of Utah’s most populous city and county, aren’t supportive of the April 10 end date. While they’re throwing their support behind businesses that are keeping their mask requirements in place until epidemiologists say it’s safe to no longer do so, they’re also still weighing their own options to keep local mask mandates in place.
Both mayors told the Deseret News on Friday they have not ruled out issuing potential mask mandates in Salt Lake City or Salt Lake County. They said their attorneys are still reviewing HB294, which Cox still hasn’t signed, and whether it would ban city or county mayors from issuing their own mandates if the state still hasn’t hit those COVID-19 benchmarks to lift all restrictions by April 10.
New emergency orders would also be subject to city or county council approval after 30 days under a different bill also approved by the Utah Legislature limiting emergency executive powers.
“Our attorneys are evaluating that,” Mendenhall said. “Hopefully, we’re not going to be faced with the need to put in a local mandate, but it’s an option that I’ll keep on the table.”
Mendenhall said that decision will be based on COVID-19 data. “Hopefully we’ll continue to see the decline that we have been seeing. But we’ll rely on the local data to make that decision.”
“We are currently reviewing options” assuming Cox signs HB294, Wilson told the Deseret News in a text message on Friday. However, she said “The most likely path is the County Council’s approval if the health department recommends. We are currently working through those options and waiting on the approval of the bill.”
The Salt Lake County Council is currently in control of a GOP veto-proof majority.
Under HB294, once the state of Utah reaches a two-week COVID-19 case rate of less than 191 per 100,000, less than 15% of intensive care unit beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, and once the state receives — but not administers — at least 1.63 million vaccinations, then all orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic are terminated, on both state and local levels.
Even though the mask mandate is supposed to lift on April 10, other restrictions including mask requirements for schools and gatherings larger than 50 will remain in place until those COVID-19 benchmarks are met.
Mendenhall said the April 10 date strays from data-based decisions.
“The evolution of the way that the state has handled COVID restrictions and the different levels over the last year got better over time, and in doing so stepped away from political decisions, and instead anchored them and the data of the pandemic,” Mendenhall said. “This April 10 decision seems to be a step away from that database health metric approach.”
Wilson in a Salt Lake County Council meeting last week expressed serious concerns about HB294, worried about the hurdles it put in place for local mask mandates if the state reaches those benchmarks listed in the bill.
“We’re S.O.L., in my opinion, after the 10th of April,” Wilson told the council. “I’m worried about our children. They’re not going to be vaccinated until the end of the year.”
From talks with Salt Lake County Health Department Director Gary Edwards, Wilson said it’s possible the state could already meet those three benchmarks close to April 10 anyway.
“Probably as soon as around that time or end of April if we stay on track with the declining rates,” Wilson said. “So I have very serious concerns about the passage of this bill and what it might mean.”
As of Friday, state officials calculated the state was at about 233.8 cases per 100,000 over 14 days, nearing the required 191 case rate for requirements to be lifted. The state already meets the ICU bed utilization rate, with an estimated 12% occupied with COVID-19 patients. And the state has also surpassed the 1 million mark for vaccines administered.
Salt Lake City businesses support mask requirement
In the meantime, Mendenhall urged Utahns to continue wearing masks.
“Even though our COVID-19 numbers have dropped and are continuing to drop significantly over the last few months, mask wearing is still vital. We’re not done,” Mendenhall said.
Her remarks came during a news conference she and several local Salt Lake City business owners held Friday at the west-side taco eatery Santo Taco, 910 N. 900 West, to urge Salt Lake City patrons to continue wearing masks beyond April 10 and respect businesses that choose to require them.
“I’m really grateful for businesses that are choosing to ask employees and patrons to keep wearing masks, even after the state mask mandate expires on April 10,” Mendenhall said. “We want the good news to keep coming. And part of that relies on our businesses and residents continuing to take precautions and wear masks until we’re fully out of the woods.”
The mayor announced she’s “asking businesses in Salt Lake City to join us today in pledging to continue requiring masks in their establishments until our health care experts say it’s safe for us to remove them.”
Mendenhall called Wilson’s Salt Lake County mask order “an incredible asset for consumer confidence” in Utah’s most populous county. She credited it for helping Salt Lake County residents and shoppers “feel more comfortable. We heard many times that patrons of Salt Lake City businesses felt safe knowing that Salt Lake City businesses were requiring and enforcing that masked mandate.”
“Not only did it slow the spread of the virus, but it saved lives,” Mendenhall said. “And it still is today. Masks have been good for business. And I don’t want to see that progress destroyed before we make it all the way through.”
Local Salt Lake business owners of Santo Taco, the barber shop Break Bread, Publik Coffee, and president of the Utah grocery store chain Harmons urged their patrons to keep wearing masks.
“Publik is asking the community to continue to wear your mask beyond the April 10 lifting of the mandate,” Publik owner Missy Greis said. “We’re also asking for people’s kindness and grace when interacting with industry employees and with each other.”
Break Bread owner Ricky Arriola said “We want to make sure this momentum we’re seeing doesn’t cease,” so his barber shop will also require masks beyond April 10.
“We’re going to make sure to do our part,” he said. “As long as we’re working on it together we will see past this.”
Mark Jensen, president and CEO of Harmons, said Harmons will keep its mask mandate as well, with still 80% of store workers still not yet vaccinated.
“We believe wholeheartedly that the mask is just such a small price to pay to have all the businesses open,” Jensen said.
Jensen also echoed the governor’s remarks urging Utahns not to be “a jerk” to store employees when it comes to stores that choose to keep mask requirements.
“Please remember, they’re just working. They’re doing their job,” Jensen said. “They didn’t put this in place. They didn’t make the pandemic. They’re just trying to show up for work every day. So remember his words, please, ‘Don’t be a jerk.’”
Greis said the pandemic brought the restaurant and bar industry “many challenges and very few easy solutions. Our industry has made incredible sacrifices to keep our employees and the community safe.”
She said Publik is continuing its mask requirement “because we have learned something: masks work.
“We’ve come so far. So we are asking for your support — support our industry, support our community, wear your masks just a little bit longer. They do work,” Greis said. “Gov. Cox knows this, but evidently the Utah Legislature does not. So please stand with us.”