Are Utah legislators 'moving on' from COVID? Groups react to end of mask mandates

Soon after the Utah Legislature overturned Salt Lake and Summit counties' mask mandates on Friday, some criticized the move as a "slap in the face" for health care workers and a sign Republican lawmakers are "moving on" in the fight against COVID-19.

"This resolution is a complete and total affront to the role of local elected officials in making decisions that are right for their communities," Diane Lewis, Utah Democratic Party chairwoman said in a statement.

The House passed joint resolution SJR3 two days after Republican majority leaders said they wanted more time to consider it before taking a vote. The resolution immediately overturned the mask mandates without needing Gov. Spencer Cox's approval.

Amid record-breaking daily new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, had issued a 30-day public health order on Jan. 7 that made "well-fitting" masks mandatory indoors. Likewise, Summit County Manager Tom Fisher and Summit County health officer Dr. Phil Bondurant ordered masks the previous day.

Lewis noted that the counties implemented the mandates earlier this month using "authority given to them by the Legislature just last year to institute temporary mask mandates," meant to combat the public health crisis.

That bill, SB195, put the power to create public health orders in the hands of local elected bodies with advice from local health departments.

Lewis contended that Republicans in the Legislature "bypassed the usual committee process to unilaterally impose their will on the people of Utah without even allowing a public hearing on the issue."

Asked by reporters to respond to that accusation, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, noted that SB195 — which he sponsored — does allow the Legislature to overturn public health orders without public hearings.

County officials react

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called the passage of SJR3 "misguided" but pleaded for residents to continue to wear "good quality" masks in public.

"We are at very high rates of COVID spread and we are hopeful to have the omicron variant of the virus behind us soon. Health experts agree masks worn properly help contain the spread of COVID. Let's all help keep our teachers teaching, our students learning, our hospitals operating, and our residents healthy," Wilson said in a statement.

Dunn noted in a statement that the community needs to "(layer) our various prevention tools" in order to protect vulnerable community members and keep businesses open. She said "this includes being up to date on vaccines, staying home when ill, and wearing a respirator mask in public during this surge. We encourage Salt Lake County residents and visitors to do these things, regardless of whether or not a mandate is in place."

Bondurant, Summit County health officer, emphasized in a statement the mask order he implemented "followed all legal requirements and was given extensive consideration by local elected officials and stakeholders."

"I remain firm in my belief that the actions taken by Summit County and the Summit County Health Department over the last two years have saved lives. Although the outcome of the vote regarding SJR3 provides a different direction than our public health order, I still believe the action taken to require masks in public places, including schools, was the right one for Summit County," Bondurant said.

He also encouraged residents and visitors to "remain diligent" and stay home if sick, get vaccinated or boosted if they haven't done so already, and wear masks in public to protect others.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton — one of two Republican council members to support the mandate — called the Legislature's decision "disappointing."

"As a County Council member, I take seriously my charge to serve and represent my constituents, which is why I voted to uphold the health order last week," Winter Newton said in a statement posted to social media.

Although she was "urged by state legislative leaders" to vote to overturn the mask mandate, she said she "stands firmly with small businesses, school teachers, and health care workers as we've seen this recent surge take down our workforce and fill our hospitals."

Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, who became the deciding vote last week to uphold the mask mandate, echoed Winder Newton's disappointment.

"As our workforce diminishes and hospitals fill with COVID patients, I will continue to look for ways to help our community with this local issue," she said in a statement.

She expressed frustration with the Legislature "(interfering) with local decisions ... without any other solutions offered."

Salt Lake County Councilman Dave Alvord and Councilwoman Dea Theodore, Republicans who supported overturning the mandate, celebrated the Legislature's decision.

"I applaud the Utah Legislature's overturn of unpopular mandates," Alvord said in a statement, adding that he supports local control but that "local control is the family" rather than county officials.

"This is a victory for rationality and liberty. The state Legislature prudently reserved the authority to prevent the decisions of one or two local officials from restricting the personal freedoms of approximately 1.5 million Utah residents. It is a shame they were forced to exercise that authority, but I am pleased that the rights of every Utah resident to make their own health decisions have been preserved," Theodore said.

'Local powers are being challenged'

Like the Utah Democratic Party, advocacy group Alliance for a Better Utah expressed frustration that lawmakers did not hold any public hearings before they overturned the mask mandates.

"Today, the Utah GOP surrendered in the war against COVID-19. Our communities are facing immense pressure in hospitals, schools, and businesses, and local public health officials have stepped up to protect residents in their counties. But instead of doing the same, members of the supermajority have obstructed these efforts, while also citing hypocritical stances on local control, questioning the decisions of local experts, and dangerously under-emphasizing the impacts of this virus on our communities," Katie Matheson, deputy director of Better Utah, said in a statement.

"They've sent a clear message that Utahns are on their own and the burden of this crisis rests on their individual shoulders. GOP lawmakers are done and they're moving on," Matheson said.

Utah House Democrats called the resolution's passage "a slap in the face to our health care workers still struggling to save lives during this public health crisis."

"It is disrespectful to Utahns who are trying to do their part to follow public health guidelines to weather this pandemic. Despite the misleading rhetoric, the CDC still says high-quality masks are an effective tool against spreading this virus," the caucus said in a statement.

Caucus leaders noted that county health officials and leaders "took reasonable actions in accordance with policies set by this Legislature last year to mitigate the rapid spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19." The mask mandates were "based on the rising number of cases, increased hospitalizations – especially among young children, and record wait times for testing in the community," according to the statement.

"For this Legislature to now undermine that process, by overruling local and temporary mask requirements, conveys apathy that erodes public trust in state leadership," the caucus said.

The Salt Lake County Democratic Party expressed disappointment that one week into the session "the local powers of municipal governments are being challenged."

"Daily statistics show the surge of COVID-19 omicron variant is not decreasing. Our best tool to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and prevent overloading our hospitals is universal masking. This temporary 30-day mask mandate seeked to achieve this exact result," the party said in a statement.

The House Majority Caucus defended its decision, explaining that it has "had significant concerns about mask mandates because of the division they have sown throughout our communities."

"By imposing mandates and placing the burden of enforcement solely on the clerks in our grocery stores, the hosts at our restaurants, and other front-line workers, mandates have pitted neighbors against neighbors across our state and country," caucus leaders said in a statement.

They added a sentiment echoed several times during debates in the Senate and House that mask mandates "have done little to slow transmission" during the omicron wave.

"We trust the people of Utah to take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and others — and the tools are available for them to do so. Although the government should not mandate it, we encourage Utahns to choose to get vaccinated, wear KN95 or N95 masks when needed and live a healthy lifestyle. Likewise, we encourage all Utahns to be considerate and understanding of their fellow citizens, whether or not they choose to wear a mask," the caucus said.