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Salt Lake City extends mask mandate beyond April 10 end date set by lawmakers

Salt Lake County declines to extend the order

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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, center, is pictured at the City-County Building on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, after announcing she is using her office’s emergency powers to keep a mask mandate in place after the statewide requirement that face coverings be worn in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 ends Saturday.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Wednesday she is using her office’s emergency powers to keep a mask mandate in place after the statewide requirement that face coverings be worn in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 ends on Saturday.

“We need to keep doing what has worked — wearing masks. My job is to try to protect the people who live in this city, to try to protect the people who work in this city and to protect the business that employ people here,” the mayor said at a news conference held outdoors on the south steps of the Salt Lake City-County Building.

“The state’s lifesaving mask requirement might end on April 10, but nothing will change that day here in Salt Lake City,” Mendenhall said.

She said her order is backed by members of the Salt Lake City Council as well as the business and medical communities.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, pictured here in April 2021, said she had “no regrets” for her push for a mask mandate to protect Salt Lake City citizens.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall listens to local business owners during a press conference at the City-County Building on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Mendenhall announced she is using her office’s emergency powers to keep a mask mandate in place after the statewide requirement that face coverings be worn in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 ends Saturday.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Earlier Wednesday, Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steve DeBry said the county will not do the same.

And Wednesday evening, Grand County announced that the county commission and the Southeast Utah Health Commission were also leaving a mask mandate in place until June 15.

However, the announcement noted the county commission and health department can choose to remove the mask requirement before the June date if they agree it is no longer needed, or will be lifted automatically if the state meets certain thresholds. Those include a 14-day case rate of less than 191 in 100,000, a seven-day ICU utilization rate of less than 15%, and if 1,633,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been allocated to the state.

The Legislature passed a billin early March that Saturday ends the statewide mask mandate put in place by then-Gov. Gary Herbert last November. The new law also requires that all COVID-19 restrictions end no later than July 1, and allows the K-12 mask mandate to continue through June in schools.

Restrictions will end sooner if the state meets thresholds set by the new law that include Utah receiving 1.63 million first doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the federal government, something state health officials expect to happen by mid-May. Case counts and hospitalization rates also have to remain low.

Mendenhall said city attorneys have reviewed the law and determined there is nothing in the law to preclude her action. The law specifies that county governing authorities can decide to extend the mask mandate based on recommendations from local health departments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could change its guidance on masks outside.

Local business owners listen as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announces during a press conference at the City-County Building on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, she is using her office’s emergency powers to keep a mask mandate in place after the statewide requirement that face coverings be worn in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 ends Saturday.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The sponsor of the so-called “end game” legislation for pandemic restrictions, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he believes Mendenhall does not have the authority to extend the mask mandate. But Ray said he doesn’t want to see the state “waste money” on trying to stop her in court.

He said Mendenhall will have to answer to voters for what he predicts will be confusion and contention caused by her order. Ray said the public has made it clear they’re done with wearing masks and “at some point, the government needs to get out of the way and let people live their lives.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a tweet that the new law gives elected county officials the authority to continue countywide mask mandates, and he does “not believe a city government should place requirements on its citizens that override the recommendation of local health experts.”

It’s not likely the Utah Attorney General’s Office will take action in Salt Lake City’s case, said spokesman Richard Piatt. Piatt said the bill “governs state and local health departments only, not municipalities like Salt Lake City.”

Standing beside Mendenhall Wednesday were a group of local business owners. Matt Caputo, owner of Caputo’s Market and Deli in Salt Lake City, thanked the mayor on behalf of retail and food service workers who have to deal with customers who don’t want to follow a store’s policy of requiring masks.

Caputo, who described the effect of the statewide mask mandate as “like someone shut off a light switch,” said he’d like to see lawmakers deal with angry customers who “think we’re threatening their freedom with our policy. It’s leaving us on our own.”

He said Caputo’s is trying to get its workers vaccinated as quickly as possible, but some weren’t able to get an appointment for a first dose until May. It will take at least another five to six weeks after that for those workers to be considered fully vaccinated with a two-dose vaccine.

“Utah is doing well. We just need more time. No matter what you believe about masks and COVID, I think ... people have heard the facts and they’re either impressed by them or they’re not. But the fears are real,” Caputo said. “Please be considerate to those who are experiencing the fear.”

Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Amy Fowler also thanked the mayor “for taking this step, this very important and urgent step to ensure the health and safety of our residents and the people who come to visit, work and play within our city.”

Fowler said “masks can be difficult. I know that they are annoying sometimes and inconvenient,” but along with social distancing, are key to seeing a decline in a virus.

Mendenhall said while people should be wearing masks in public, including when they are outside if they’re close to others.

She said enforcing the city’s mask mandate is “not something we want to do and it’s not something we’ve ever done.” But the proclamation signed Wednesday spells out violations are class B misdemeanors, although prosecutors are encouraged to exercise discretion.

The proclamation also states the mask mandate remains in effect until it is amended or rescinded by the mayor.

DeBry and other County Council members called a news conference to announce there will be no meeting Friday to consider the issue after Gary Edwards, executive director of the county’s health department, recommended not extending the mandate.

In a letter released by DeBry, Edwards said he “is not currently seeking approval” for a mask requirement, citing improvements including a decline in cases, but calling on the county to continue to encourage and recommend mask use.

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Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, left, listens as council Chairman Steve DeBry, discusses the council’s position on extending the county’s mask mandate at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Salt Lake County Health Director Gary Edwards recommended the county not extend the mandate pursuant to the passage of HB294.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Edwards did not attend the news conference held in the county’s Salt Lake City chambers. Later Wednesday, he said at his own news conference that public health orders should be used rarely and warned against confusion at a time when the focus should be on getting people vaccinated.

But Edwards also expressed support for Salt Lake City’s decision.

“We fully support municipalities, government agencies and businesses that choose to require masks for the protection of their unvaccinated staff and patrons,” he said, adding that Mendenhall’s order “should not affect Salt Lake County in any way.”

The county health department executive director’s advice for Utahns? “If you’re not vaccinated, or if you’re in public around people whose vaccination status you don’t know, you should continue to wear a mask,” he said, predicting it could be early to mid-June before enough people are vaccinated to slow the spread significantly.

On Tuesday,Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said masks will still have to be worn in county facilities.

DeBry said the public is tired of having to wear masks.

“There’s mask fatigue. There’s COVID fatigue. People want to get back to normal life,” he said. “This allows people in Salt Lake County to not wear a mask if they don’t want to.”

DeBry said businesses and other private property owners can still require masks, just as the county mayor ordered. Gov. Spencer Cox issued a similar order last week for state employees and those entering state buildings that Ray also said goes too far.

Daily case counts jump

Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 612 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths from the virus, a Washington County man between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized at the time of his death, and a Salt Lake County man between 45 and 64 who was in the hospital when he died.

Utah’s death toll from the virus now stands at 2,139.

There have been 1,561,167 total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in Utah, a daily increase of 34,814. The state health department said as of Wednesday, 1,013,308 Utahns have received at least one vaccine dose, approximately 44% of those eligible for the shots. All residents who are at least 16 years old can get a vaccination.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 401 per day, and 7,246 additional Utahns took tests since Tuesday and a total of 18,522 tests were administered. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests at 3.5% when all results are included, and 7.2% when multiple tests by an individual over the past 90 days are excluded.

Currently, 140 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19.