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Salt Lake City mayor mandates masks for K-12 schools

Salt Lake City Erin Mendenhall orders school mask mandate, citing support from school board

David Phillips holds a sign in support of school mask mandates.
David Phillips holds a sign in support of school mask mandates outside of the Utah State Board of Education office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has announced she’ll be using her emergency powers to require masks in all K-12 schools in the city.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As promised, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Friday issued an emergency order to require masks in all K-12 schools in the city, citing support from the Salt Lake City School District.

“I’ve heard personally from a majority of the board’s members who’ve privately told me they want me to issue this order,” Mendenhall said in a prepared statement. “While acting without an official position of the board is not my preferred path, hanging in the balance of this decision is the health of our children, our community, and our health care workers.”

The mayor issued the order just days before the first day of school on Tuesday. It takes effect immediately for at least 30 days, subject to extension by the Salt Lake City Council.

“Kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated but are required to be indoors in school all day. In our county, only 50% of kids between 12 and 17 are vaccinated,” the mayor said. “That’s just not enough to protect these kids, their families, and the community at large.”

Under the order, all staff, visitors, members of the public, teachers, and students attending kindergarten through grade 12 at a public, charter, or private schools in Salt Lake City are required to wear a face mask when indoors. That includes while riding a bus, attending a school-sponsored indoor activity, or outdoors on school property when social distancing is not possible.

The order includes the following exceptions:

  • People with specific medical conditions.
  • In outdoor settings if 6 feet of social distancing is maintained.
  • While actively eating or drinking.
  • While alone or with only members of the same household in a room, cubicle, or bus.
  • When communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing (if communication can’t be achieved through other means, or if the speaker wears a face shield or uses other protection such as plexiglass).
  • When teaching or learning speech therapy.
  • While actively performing as an athlete at a school organized or school sponsored athletic event.
  • While exercising in athletic training while outdoors or indoors while maintaining at least 6 feet of physical distance from other individuals.
  • While swimming or on duty as a lifeguard.
  • While rehearsing for or giving an educational, artistic, musical or theatrical presentation or performance for an audience at a school.

Download a copy of the order here: SLCSchoolMaskOrder.pdf

Mendenhall’s announcement follows her comments to the Salt Lake City Council earlier this week that she’d move to require masks in Salt Lake City schools — if the school board supported the move.

In that meeting Tuesday, the mayor said it would have been “much more impactful and would have prevented far more illness” had the Salt Lake County Council not struck down a countywide school mask mandate.

However, she cited COVID-19 “disasters” that are already playing out in schools across the country, especially in Florida where about 5,600 students in the Hillsborough County school district in Florida are in isolation or quarantine as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

“As mayor it is my responsibility to do everything I can to keep our city, and our school district, from going down the tragic and dangerous path many others are already on,” Mendenhall said.

The mayor said she would issue the order even though the school board did not convene to issue a formal vote of support. Though an official position of the board would be her “preferred path,” the mayor moved ahead citing a politically charged environment.

“Our school board is a locally elected governing body charged with making educational and safety decisions for our district’s children,” Mendenhall said. “Unfortunately, and despite all the evidence that masks protect children and the adults who care for them, this issue has become politicized to the point that elected bodies across the country, and in the state of Utah, worry about retribution if they take a public stand as an organization.”

The mayor’s promised school mask mandate comes despite the Utah Legislature’s pandemic “endgame” law, HB294, which limits the ability for officials to issue mask mandates.

Mendenhall said she’s “fully confident,” based on a legal analysis from the city attorney’s office, that she has the power to issue the order.

Although the Legislature enacted laws that specifically limit local health departments’ and the governor’s emergency authority over mask orders, those limits do not apply specifically to a mayor’s local emergency authority in the same way, Mendenhall said city attorneys have concluded.

Mendenhall said she looked forward to lifting the mask mandate “when we reach safer levels of transmission and immunity.”

“We will continue to work with health officials and rely on them to help us determine when the order can be lifted,” she said.