Salt Lake County has imposed a mask mandate after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urged county leaders Friday to put the “lifesaving” requirement in place to combat the dramatic spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant that’s resulted in record case counts in Utah.
A 30-day public health order issued Friday by Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, 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.
The mask mandate takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and remains in place until 5 p.m. on Feb. 7 applies to schools, Dunn said, meaning K-12 students must wear face coverings. She said the new order is similar to the mask mandate that started Friday in Summit County.
The mandates come as the Utah Department of Health reported 9,469 new COVID-19 cases and 19 additional deaths from the virus, including five prior to Dec. 7, 2021. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is just under 25% when all results are counted and 16.8% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
“We desperately need to use every tool available to ensure our hospitals can continue providing excellent health care through this surge,” Dunn said in a statement.
“We also need to ensure that our essential services have the staff necessary to operate — from law enforcement, to plow drivers, to schoolteachers. It is my obligation as health officer to take the action I believe has the best chance to prevent unnecessary suffering throughout our community,” she said.
Will the mask mandate stand?
Under a law passed by the Utah Legislature to curb the power of local governments to enact mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions, both the County Council and state lawmakers have the power to overturn actions taken by local public health departments.
Late Friday afternoon, 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.
“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,” the legislative leaders said in a joint statement.
“As other areas have experienced, we hope Utah’s current COVID-19 surge is temporary. We continue to encourage Utahns to get vaccinated and take precautions to keep themselves and those around them healthy without overwhelming our hospitals,” they said.
At a news conference, Mendenhall was asked if she’s concerned there may be legislative action to stop the mask mandate. State lawmakers abruptly ended a statewide mask mandate last spring despite concerns from health experts.
“I’m the Salt Lake City mayor, so that’s always something that’s on the table,” she said, noting some lawmakers have already made it clear they intend to close a loophole that allowed her to impose mask mandates, including in schools, last year.
Dunn, who served as state epidemiologist throughout much of the pandemic, said she doesn’t expect lawmakers to step in because they have “reiterated again and again this is a local issue.” She said she worked closely with county council members on the language and there was support on both sides of the aisle.
Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, who is sick with COVID-19, was polling County Council members Friday, her aide, Abby Evans, said. Evans said the order would take effect because a special meeting would have had to be called Friday to roll it back.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t be taken up by the council, although it is not currently on the council’s agenda for next Tuesday’s meeting.
“There are currently no plans to rescind the order. At this time the Salt Lake County Council is discussing the Public Health Order issued by Dr. Angela Dunn and Mayor (Jenny) Wilson’s administration,” Stringham said in a statement issued Friday evening. “Considering the spread and urgency of the omicron variant of COVID-19, this issue will be a top priority for the Salt Lake County Council.”
The Summit County mask mandate had the support of the Summit County Council, health department officials there said.
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican, said in a series of tweets she has told Dunn she’ll support a countywide mask mandate.
“I am not one who generally supports government mandates, but the data is clear that we have some difficult times in the coming weeks. I believe this is necessary to send a message that decreased social contact is imperative so that we do not overwhelm our hospitals and can keep schools and businesses open,” she tweeted.
The omicron variant is incredibly contagious, and although masks don’t work as well as they did with earlier variants, I still believe we need to do all we can to slow the spread so our workers don’t all get sick at the same time. (2/)— Aimee Winder Newton (@AWinderNewton) January 7, 2022
Last August, the GOP-controlled County Council voted to stop an order by Dunn that masks be worn in Salt Lake County schools, citing parent opposition. When Dunn addressed the council Tuesday about the pandemic, she did not bring up a mask mandate, telling a reporter there was “no indication” the council would be receptive.
What’s changed, Dunn said Friday, are increases in COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations, while at the same time, more essential employees are being felled by the virus and are unable to work. “For me,” she said, “it’s purely a health decision.”
Vaccinated, boosted and masked? Then you ‘can go about your daily life’
Salt Lake County’s order won’t be extended beyond 30 days, Dunn said, time that will be used to focus on getting residents vaccinated, especially in West Valley City, Riverton and Herriman, cities that have higher hospitalization rates due to low vaccination rates,
For residents who have gotten both the initial doses as well as the booster shot seen as providing the most protection against severe illness from omicron, Dunn’s advice is to “just put on a mask and go about your daily life,” as long as the mask is well-fitting and high quality, like a KN95.
She said county libraries, senior centers, schools and community based organizations will be distributing appropriate masks. For those who only have cloth face coverings, Dunn said they may want to double mask and ensure they fit closely.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, backed the mask mandate in a statement, saying she “deeply” appreciates Dunn’s expertise.
“I accept her recommendation for a 30-day countywide mask requirement in Salt Lake County. The Omicron variant has spread rapidly. Just two weeks ago, we were at 500 cases a day in Salt Lake County. Today we sit at over 4,600 per day. We recognize the sense of urgency in our community as hospitals are threatened,” she said.
“We need to utilize every tool available to slow the spread and high-quality masks worn indoors in public spaces are a proven measure. Our county is open, we are running business as usual. This is a temporary step that is necessary to get us through this next phase of COVID,” the Salt Lake County mayor said.
Mendenhall sent letters to county officials that were released to the news media Friday, warning that “cases are exploding in Utah and health experts warn that we have yet to see the peak from the Omicron surge.”
Today I sent letters to County leaders imploring them to enact a countywide mask requirement for the next several weeks. With cases exploding, we need to do everything we can to protect residents, particularly the vulnerable and our heroic medical staff https://t.co/f5DWWaMBaM— Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) January 7, 2022
“A countywide requirement will do significantly more to protect our constituents than a mask requirement in Salt Lake City alone, both in reducing community transmission during the highly contagious Omicron wave, and in protecting the heroic medical staff at our overwhelmed hospitals,” the Salt Lake City mayor said.
Utah hard-hit by omicron
Hospitals are already reducing bed space and postponing surgeries due to staffing shortages, as hundreds of employees are home sick with COVID-19. Some health care workers have reportedly stopped showing up for work because of the strain of dealing with unprecedented numbers of coronavirus patients.
Utah is also rationing treatments for the virus, because monoclonal antibodies and the new antiviral pills are in short supply nationwide. Doctors have said there’s only enough to treat 1 in 100 patients, warning anyone who chose not to be vaccinated and is relying on being treated if they catch COVID-19 to rethink that strategy.
Access to the state’s COVID-19 testing sites that have struggled to keep up with the demand is changing, the state health department announced Friday. Now, appointments will be required for tests at the Cannon Health Building in Salt Lake City, Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem, and sites in Bountiful and West Jordan.
People must arrive one hour prior to closing time at all sites, and be prepared for a wait that could last up to four hours. State-run sites will no longer provide testing needed to attend events, or for those who need regular testing for their work.