The state won’t require masks to be worn in K-12 schools during the final week of classes, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday, although he said local districts could choose to continue the mandate put in place to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We felt like this was a really solid compromise opportunity,” the governor said during his weekly update on the state’s efforts against the deadly virus, held at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. He said “many” school superintendents had asked for an end to the mandate.

Also Thursday, the governor said he is working with the Legislature to come up with some sort of incentive for Utahns to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. He said other states have offered everything from fishing licenses to beer to drawings for cash prizes, although games of chance are prohibited in Utah.

“There is nothing more important than getting our vaccination numbers up,” Cox said, so he’s turned to behavior scientists, health officials, residents and even other governors for ideas, and is “very interested” in Ohio’s new “Vax-A-Million” lottery offering $1 million cash prizes for adults and scholarships for teens who get the shots.

“Now, I recognize that we don’t have raffles or gambling in the state of Utah. I want to be very clear this is not that,” the governor said, describing lotteries as “taxes on people that are bad at math.” He said the concept is being reviewed by his legal team and is “something that I support.”

Other ideas are being sought, and lawmakers would have to appropriate funds for any incentive, Cox said, “but there is no amount of money that is too much to help us get an extra 5 or 10% of people vaccinated when you look at the damage that has happened to our economy, to our nation, because of this pandemic.”

Gov. Spencer Cox arrives for a weekly briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.
Gov. Spencer Cox arrives for a weekly briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 13, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

‘This is the right thing to do’

A new law that ended Utah’s statewide mask mandate on April 10 and other restrictions related to the coronavirus earlier this month also allowed the state to continue requiring masks in K-12 schools. But that decision has been controversial, with rowdy protesters forcing the abrupt adjournment of a recent Granite School Board meeting.

After the protest, Cox had urged Utahns to treat each other better, telling them to “hang on there. We’re at the end. Let’s end this the right way and let’s go forward and have positive interactions with each other.”

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But now, a week later, he announced it will be up to school districts to take action if they want to keep the mandate in place for the final week of the school year. The governor said waiting until then to lift the requirement would allow children to stay home if they or their parents were uncomfortable with masks no longer being mandatory.

Gov. Spencer Cox provides updates on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during a weekly briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 13, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Granite School District said in a statement issued later Thursday it will follow the earlier end date for the K-12 mask mandate.

“As such, while masks are still recommended and individuals may still choose to wear a mask, they will not be required for the last week of the school year,” the district’s statement said.

Other, including the Canyons School District, are also going along with the governor, while some, such as the Morgan County and the Washington County school districts have already done away with enforcing the mask mandate.

Lifting the state mandate for schools starting on the Monday of the final week of the school year will allow teachers and students to see each other’s faces before summer break, Cox said, adding “that stuff matters.” He said in many schools, there have been no COVID-19 cases for weeks.

“We believe this is the right thing to do. We believe this is the prudent thing to do. But I will say masks are still encouraged, and families and children will be able to make those decisions,” the governor said, asking that “everyone be respectful of the choices that are made.”

Teachers were among the first groups eligible for the shots in Utah, and the vaccine has been available in many high schools for students 16 and older. Final federal approval to begin vaccinating adolescents 12 to 15 years old came Wednesday, while the effects on younger children are still being studied.

Dr. Michelle Hofmann provides updates on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during a weekly briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 13, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Dr. Michelle Hofmann, Utah Department of Health deputy director, told reporters at the briefing that “as a pediatrician, I would encourage every parent to send their child to school in a mask,” and adults to continue to wear masks in schools until more of the population is vaccinated.

“That said, this is a very challenging subject,” Hofmann acknowledged at her first COVID-19 briefing in the public health expert role that had been filled throughout the pandemic by Dr. Angela Dunn, who stepped down as state epidemiologist to head the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Hofmann praised Cox for listening to all sides before making a decision to end the school mask mandate early.

But she said at this point, masks remain a “very effective public health intervention” and it doesn’t take a mandate to get people to wear them. “This is our time in the response to rely on our citizens to do the right thing to protect themselves and protect others.”

Parents need to talk with their children about what to do if others at school are no longer wearing masks, Hofmann said, as she did recently with her son, 17, and daughter, 15, who are both in high school.

“My son said, ‘I’m totally immune. I’ve been vaccinated. I’m going to wear my mask and I want to go to school.’ My daughter said, ‘I haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated yet (her appointment is tomorrow). I don’t feel comfortable going to school. I don’t want to go to school. I’ll stay home.’”

She said it’s up to parents to assess the risks.

“Let’s let our children witness that we can all do this together,” Hofmann said. “Let’s not use them as instruments, either.”

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Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said the state’s interagency response to the pandemic is winding down, with many employees assigned to the effort returning to their regular duties and the state health department assuming responsibility starting Monday.

Henderson said the governor’s weekly briefings, which started when Cox was lieutenant governor under former Gov. Gary Herbert, will continue through this month and then likely become more infrequent.

Cox started off the briefing by saying Utah is “doing very well” in its fight to contain the virus.

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

The state health department reported 418 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and six additional deaths from the virus, including three that occurred before April 13. Utah has had a total of 401,669 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

The state has administered a total of 2,355,333 vaccine doses, a daily increase of 14,578.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 328 per day, and 6,562 Utahns have been tested and a total of 14,677 tests conducted since Wednesday. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity at 3.6% when all results are included and 6.7% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Currently, 152 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, bringing the total number of hospitalizations in the state to 16,467. Utah’s death toll from the virus is 2,255, including the six deaths reported Thursday:

• A Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Tooele County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• Two Iron County men, both 65-84 and hospitalized at the time of death.

• A Salt Lake County man, 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez