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Salt Lake County mayor to Utah governor: State buildings not exempt from mask order

A week away from 2022 session, mask wearing inconsistent at Utah Capitol despite county order

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Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson discusses schoolchildren and masks.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson discusses schoolchildren and masks at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Aug. 10, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is pushing back against Gov. Spencer Cox after the governor deemed masks optional in state government buildings despite the countywide mask order issued Friday.

“I have learned that Gov. Cox has directed that with limited exceptions the mask requirement established by Salt Lake County will not apply to state buildings and the employees and visitors to those buildings,” Wilson said Monday in a prepared statement.

“While I appreciate the governor’s authority on many levels, he does not have the authority to exempt state buildings and employees from the Salt Lake County mask requirement and is defying a public health order of constraint,” the Democratic mayor said.

Cox, a Republican, said in a prepared statement to the Deseret News he supports Wilson’s authority to issue local mask mandates, but disagrees that the county has the power to require masks in state buildings.

“Under current state law, counties can issue health orders for their individual counties. We support Mayor Wilson in this regard and we encourage people in counties where a mask mandate has been issued to comply with that health order,” Cox said. “However, counties do not have the authority to bind the state and, as such, a county order does not apply to state buildings. We stand by our earlier guidance to state employees to encourage but not require masks in state facilities, and we continue to urge all Utahns to be vaccinated and boosted.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, issued the 30-day public health order on Friday. It requires everyone over 2 years old in the county, regardless of vaccination status or past COVID-19 infection, to wear “well-fitting masks” indoors or if standing in line in public. It took effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

“With omicron cases threatening our community, not only is this a blatant disregard for the law by our state’s chief elected officer, but a disregard for the health of our community and local authority,” Wilson said. “I would expect the governor to set an example for us all by following the law during this challenging time.”

According to an email circulated by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services on Sunday, the governor issued “statewide direction and guidance” to all state departments that masks would not be required in state buildings.

“While mask wearing is supported if desired, state-owned facilities will not require employees or visitors to wear a mask in our buildings,” the email stated. “Exceptions are state-operated 24-7 congregate care facilities that have existing mask requirements, the UDOH health clinic, and the UDOH on-site structures for COVID-19 testing.”

The email also stated that the “best tool against COVID-19 continues to be vaccinations and boosters.”

“We continue to support voluntary mask wearing, getting tested, and staying home when sick. High-quality masks were delivered to all UDOH/DHS buildings last week. If you would like a mask, please ask your building’s administrative support or employee support contact,” the email stated.

Wilson pointed to SB195, legislation approved by the Utah Legislature that restricts the power of local governments to enact coronavirus-related requirements including mask mandates. The law, however, created a process whereby health orders of “constraint,” such as mask orders, can be issued by a local health department.

“Those orders can be terminated by the local chief executive officer within 72 hours of issuance, or they can be overridden by the local legislative body at any time. The legislation does not allow for the governor to disregard the local health order,” Wilson said.

The GOP-controlled Salt Lake County Council is not expected to overturn the mask mandate, even though it has that power under SB195.

Sunday evening, Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, a Republican, issued a news release announcing she “will not be calling for a special session on the temporary health mandate at this time.” Stringham said the county “realizes the need to step up and offer to the public a better solution for protection.”

Councilman Dave Alvord, also a Republican, expressed his disappointment in a Sunday evening Facebook post that Stringham was “not ready to overturn the mask mandate,” but urged those who didn’t support it to push back by “contacting your legislators and asking them to intervene.”

The Utah Legislature has the power under SB195 to overturn local health orders. On Friday, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, stopped short of saying the new mask mandates would stand. They promised a “review” of the Salt Lake County order.

“The Legislature has outlined a process in SB195 with multiple checks and balances. While we believe government mandates should be a last resort, we will review the recently issued orders,” Adams and Wilson said in a joint statement.

On Monday, House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, called on Salt Lake County leaders to “reconsider their actions.”

“Instead, they should be focused on providing the best information possible to their residents regarding masks, vaccinations, and other prevention measures as well as early treatment information to prevent hospitalizations,” he said. “While they may be well-intended, government mandates are not the answer. They have resulted in unnecessary divisiveness that is tearing our communities and our state apart.”

Schultz said he stands “adamantly against government mandates,” while adding “it’s imperative for all of us to take personal responsibility to decrease our risk of infection, reduce the burden on our health care workers, and protect those around us.” He urged Utahns to stay home when sick, telework when possible, practice good personal hygiene and live a healthy lifestyle.

“Additionally, Utahns should work with their healthcare provider to discuss whether to be vaccinated and what treatment options are available should they get sick,” Schultz said.

“We must come together, take responsibility for our own actions, and look to the future with optimism, and we can do all of that without the heavy hand of the government.”

The Senate president said he supports letting Utahns decide for themselves on whether to wear a mask.

“I support individuals’ right to wear or not wear a mask. However, we need to deal with COVID calmly, rationally and review and apply what we have learned over the past 22 months,” Adams said in a prepared statement.

“We should take a balanced approach of saving lives, livelihoods and kids’ education while preserving personal liberties. We need to continue informing and providing Utahns with as many resources as possible, including making testing, vaccines/boosters and therapeutics readily available. After almost two years into the pandemic, I have full confidence in Utahns’ ability to use good judgment to make personal choices without interference from the government,” Adams said.

House leaders did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday regarding mask requirements in state buildings and Mayor Wilson’s comments.

At the Utah Capitol — where staff were busy preparing for the 2022 general session slated to begin on Jan. 18 — mask wearing was inconsistent among staff and visitors on Monday.

At the beginning of 2021, the Utah Capitol opened to the public for that general session with mask and social distancing requirements, as well as encouragement that Utahns participate virtually.

Now about a week away from the beginning of the 2022 general session, the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City did not have mask requirements despite the Salt Lake County order — and despite Utah’s surge in COVID-19 cases as the highly contagious omicron variant rapidly spreads throughout the state.

Utah saw an increase of 24,147 COVID-19 cases since Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported Monday.