Utahns are split over state lawmakers limiting the power of local authorities to enact mask mandates to fight the spread of COVID-19, but a majority believe public health departments — not elected officials — should be making those decisions, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

The poll found that 44% of Utahns approve but 43% disapprove of the restrictions on mask mandates put in place by the Utah Legislature last March that give county councils or commissions and, ultimately state lawmakers the power to overturn orders by other local or state officials.

But 53% of Utahns believe public health departments should control whether or not face coverings are required — 26% say that authority should rest with the Utah Department of Health and 27%, with the state’s local health departments.

Just 8% want to see the Utah Legislature in charge of mask mandates, while another 8% chose the governor; 14%, local elected officials; and 18% weren’t sure. Last spring, state lawmakers also voted to end a statewide mask mandate ordered in November 2020 by then-Gov. Gary Herbert.

Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics Sept. 1-5 of 827 registered Utah voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

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Passengers and airport officials wearing masks ride an escalator at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute, said Utahns remain divided over mask mandates just as they have been throughout the pandemic that began some 18 months ago.

“You start looking at these really important decisions and seeing the reality is there is no clear agreement among Utahns about the law restricting local government powers on mask mandates,” Perry said. But he said the poll also makes it clear Utahns prefer that public health experts deal with the issue rather than politicians.

“Even though issues surrounding masks have become deeply political, Utahns do look at this issue and say, ‘Medical guidance should be at the heart of this decision.’ I think this is a good reflection on Utahns, too, even though it is so polarized,” he said. “That’s something I would take heart in.”

Although all Utahns, including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, are being urged by health experts to wear masks with cases surging due to the dominance of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, the focus on mask mandates in the state has been on schools.

In August, the U.S. Department of Education announced Utah is one of five states under investigation for banning schools from mandating masks, along with Iowa, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The department says the rights of students, especially those with disabilities, may be being violated because their health is at risk.

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State lawmakers specifically barred school districts from requiring masks, so at the start of the school year, local health departments in Salt Lake, Grand and Summit counties issued emergency health orders for masking in elementary schools, since children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Salt Lake County Council quickly overturned that county’s order, but Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall came up with her own executive order for masks in the city’s K-12 schools, even though her authority has been questioned by some lawmakers. The Salt Lake City Council just extended her order another 30 days.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he sees the poll results as backing the Legislature’s actions.

“A question you don’t have on here is who do you think should make public policy decisions, would that be somebody that is appointed or who is accountable to the people,” Adams said, adding that split over the new law suggests those “those that understand what we did obviously support it because we found that balance.”

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The Senate leader said he’s “extremely encouraged” respondents were evenly divided over whether lawmakers got it right by allowing health departments to initiate the orders but setting up local and state elected officials to be “another check and balance.”

He acknowledged others may view the results differently. “You could probably take either side of that, but I guess I’m just looking at the glass half full instead of half empty.” Still, Adams said he’s not sure whether there will be any changes to the law.

“This has been a work in progress since day 1 of the pandemic. It’s something none of us experienced before. We’re still learning and I think our minds are open. But I think generally speaking, the system is working and we’re getting through this,” he said.

Gov. Spencer Cox considered a pair of public health orders that would give schools more authority to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, including temporarily requiring masks once cases hit a specific threshold, but said he won’t go forward if there’s legislative opposition. The issue has been discussed with lawmakers behind closed doors.

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