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Poll shows little unity among Utahns when it comes to mask mandates and who should enact them

Utahns want local leaders to enact public health policy — but opinions vary on who that local leader is

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A young woman wears a KN95 mask in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022. Utahns are divided over the value of masks during this stage of the pandemic, a poll reveals.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When it comes to public opinion surrounding mask mandates and who should enact them, Utahns are divided.

That’s according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that shows little consensus around the Legislature’s move to restrict local governments and school districts from enacting mask mandates — and ultimately what governing body should have the power to impose such a mandate.

Lawmakers wasted no time on the issue this year, with the House voting 45-29 to end the locally imposed COVID-19 mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties just three days into the legislative session.

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About 50% of respondents disapprove of the law, while 45% say lawmakers made the right decision. Roughly 5% said they don’t know.

Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of 815 registered Utah voters from Jan. 20 though Jan. 28. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.43 percentage points.

Who should impose a mask mandate?

On the issue of what governing body should impose mask mandates, 44% say a health department — 21% think it should fall to local health officials, and 23% said state officials.

About 11% said the Legislature should be able to impose mask mandates, and 8% said a local school board.

And 23% said no one should have the ability to enact a mask mandate, a sentiment on display during the contentious three-hour public comment period that came before the Salt Lake County Council voted to uphold its mandate.

“I can agree with that,” said Salt Lake County Councilwoman Dea Theodore, who told the Deseret News the 23% opposed to any government entity imposing a mask mandate was a key takeaway. “That’s kind of been my stance all along, that individuals should have the right to choose for themselves.”

During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers passed SB195, which scaled back emergency powers of the governor and mayors, but also allowed a framework for local governments to impose a mask mandate if it starts with a county health department, then goes up the ladder to locally elected officials.

Salt Lake County followed that framework, only to have the legislature “move the goalposts,” said county Mayor Jenny Wilson, who told the Deseret News in January that she was frustrated by the law.

Before it was rescinded by lawmakers, the council did vote to uphold the mandate — Theodore, who voted against it, said she would have preferred to overturn it at the county level.

“However this is something that was affecting the state as a whole. And when that became a factor, then the state used its tools to step in and override what had been voted on,” she said.

Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton was one of two Republicans who voted to uphold the mandate. She says she’s not surprised by the poll results, especially the support Utahns have for health policy starting at health departments, whether it’s local or statewide.

“They’re the ones who have the experience and the knowledge and are looking at this every day, all day. And I think they’re the ones who should be giving recommendations. Now I do think it’s good that elected representatives have to move it forward, or decide not to move it forward, because we’re looking at lots of different things,” she said.

One thing is clear — Utahns don’t want a mayor or governor to enact a mask mandate. Only 5% said a governor should have that power, and 4% said a mayor should. Roughly 5% said they don’t know.

Lack of consensus extends to political parties

Though the issue is typically framed as a partisan one, Republican voters are split on the Legislature’s decision to override the mask mandate in Salt Lake and Summit counties — 48% approved and 47% disapproved.

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That’s in line with the feedback Winder Newton got from constituents after she voted to uphold the county’s mandate.

“I heard from plenty of Republicans who maybe were either indifferent or didn’t love the mask mandate, but were livid to hear that local control was usurped,” she said.

The question of local control, and whether state lawmakers or county leaders should pass public health measures, is at the heart of the divide among Republican respondents, says Chris Karpowitz, political science professor at Brigham Young University.

“Local control has been a conservative value for many years — for decades, even,” he said. “If the people feel like the legislature is violating that principled position, then that’s important. It means that the legislature does not have the full support even of Republicans. ... I think that’s something to watch very carefully going forward.”

Still, Karpowitz doesn’t think “anyone’s going to lose their next election over this.” The lack of consensus among GOP voters suggests the political ramifications for Republicans that voted in favor, or against, the mask mandate will be manageable both at the county and state level, he says.

Winder Newton said she would have voted to uphold the mandate even if polling suggested harsher political consequences.

“It looks like you could have gone either way, and you would have somebody unhappy. But for me, I always sleep better at night when I vote my conscience and I vote based on data and what our health professionals are looking at and I can look at all of those pieces together instead of what’s the most politically expedient,” she said.

There’s more of a consensus among the Democrat voters surveyed, 59% of whom disapproved of the Legislature’s vote. Still, 36% approved.

One of the largest political divisions is evident in the question of who should impose a mask mandate — 31% of Republicans said “no one” compared to only 6% of Democrats.

In an email, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall says feedback from constituents in the Democrat-leaning city “is overwhelmingly supportive of our efforts to keep children, teachers, residents, businesses and visitors safe.”

“I stand by my decisions and policies we’ve maintained since the start of the pandemic. Our decisions will be data driven and we will do everything we can to keep our residents healthy and safe. At the end of the day, I trust our public health officials and their guidance,” she said.

More Democrats say the state health department should be able to enact a mandate, too. About 36% said the Utah Department of Health should have that power, a sentiment only 12% of Republicans support.

There’s bipartisan support for local health departments, with about 22% of both Republicans and Democrats saying they should be able to issue a mask mandate.

Adding ‘uncertainty into the process’

Having gone through the steps outlined by the Legislature to enact a mask mandate, then days later having that mandate overturned, Winder Newton says the process of passing public health measures will be more complicated moving forward.

Now she says county leaders will likely ask the Legislature for a letter of support “before we go through the trouble of trying to assess what’s right for our community.”

“After the recent actions of going through a pretty robust process in Salt Lake County and then having the Legislature just overturn our order I think makes most leaders a little gun shy to do anything in the future without the Legislature giving their support,” she said.

Meanwhile Theodore says there isn’t a hypothetical threshold, whether it’s brought on by rising cases or a new variant, that would make her change her stance on a mask mandate.

“I think what we’ve learned, unless you’re using a specific type of mask, which I’m not totally sure does actually work, is the mask mandates just haven’t been effective,” she said.

Karpowitz says the last year — where the Legislature scaled back the governor’s emergency powers, created a framework for local governments to impose a mask mandate, then overruled a local ordinance that followed the very guidelines they established — could make it difficult for county leaders to enact meaningful public health policy in the future.

“It injects a great deal of uncertainty into the process,” he said. “And I can only imagine how frustrating it is for public health officials who are trying to follow the science with a changing threat.”

Correction: A previous version referred to Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton as Aimee Winder-Newton.