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Salt Lake County Council overturns K-6 mask mandate

Salt Lake County Council members meet Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. Photo: KSl NewsRadio

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Council members voted Thursday afternoon to overturn a mask mandate ordered by the Salt Lake County Health Department for students under age 12 at school. 

KSL NewsRadio aired the meeting and the vote live. Listen here or follow our video live stream below for more analysis and coverage. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, notified Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson earlier this week that she intended to order students under age 12 to wear masks at school. Under state law, the County Council had the right to either approve or reject that public health order. They exercised that right on Thursday in a 6-to-3 vote. 

A contentious discussion over the county mask mandate

A large crowd showed up for the Thursday meeting, occasionally cheering or even cat-calling as members spoke. 

Councilman Jim Bradley urged the council to let the mask order stay in place at least temporarily, in light of what we don’t yet know about the delta variant of COVID-19. 

“Salt Lake County is in a unique position to be a contributor to the body of knowledge of whether masks work or not,” Bradley pointed out. “What would be the harm, compared to the benefit, of testing this issue on the masks?” 

Bradley suggested the group wait to decide whether to overturn the mask mandate from the county health department. 

His suggestion was defeated 6 to 3, leaving the initial resolution, proposing the health department’s order be overturned, before the council. 

No crystal ball 

The discussion on the resolution to overturn the county mask mandate centered around the available data. 

“None of us have a crystal ball to see how our decisions today affect the future,” Councilwoman Aimee Winder-Newton said. She noted that while the delta variant shows more children testing positive for COVID-19, their risk of complications or severe illness remains low. 

“When this pandemic began, we united against a common enemy: the virus. Scientists from around the world came together to study every possible treatment,” said Councilwoman Ann Granato. “It’s my hope that we can come together again as a community and work to make the virus the common enemy.” 

“I appreciate your many emails and messages — I received thousands of emails,” said Councilwoman Dea Theodore. “For now, the evidence does not warrant heavy-handed government intervention.” 

Councilman Richard Snelgrove cited mental health concerns in his position. 

“I will vote to overturn the mask mandate,” he said. 

Final vote tally 

Council members voted 6 to 3 to overturn the mask mandate ordered by the Salt Lake County Health Department. The vote effectively kills the order for now; however, Dunn and health officials can request mask orders again in the future. 

(Signs held during the council meeting by the anti-mandate crowd. Photo: Paul Nelson)

The vote came amid cheers from some in the crowd. 

In a statement, Dunn thanked the council for acting quickly, despite the vote overturning her order. 

“Though this is not the result I had hoped for, I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively with the Council and other stakeholders to address the COVID pandemic,” she wrote. “I chose to issue a mask order because the delta variant is a serious threat to children and our current transmission rates require a strong intervention — one proven effective last school year. Though the order will not stand, I’m optimistic that issuing it clearly signaled my level of concern as a medical professional, and that it will help more parents choose to send their children to school in masks.” 

Comments from state leaders

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson commented on Salt Lake County’s decision to overturn the recommended mask mandate for children 12 and younger
“Today the Salt Lake County Council, in its role as representatives of the people of Salt Lake County, looked at the many competing interests and views of their constituents, and made the decision they determined best,” Wilson said. “While many are likely happy with this decision and many are disappointed, as we move forward, we should all make the effort to take care of one another, treat each other kindly, and continue to work together through our flawed yet exceptional democratic process to make our State better. Our immediate focus continues to be educating our kids and ensuring they are caught up from the past years’ disruptions.”

President Stuart Adams also commented on the decision.

“The process we set in place with S.B. 195 is working,” he said. “Over the course of the pandemic, we heard from countless parents across the state who were worried their ability to choose what is best for their child was being taken away. We listened to their perspective and concerns and passed S.B. 195 Emergency Response Amendments, helping place checks and balances on the process and giving more power back to the people.”

A great decision… or a big mistake

During the council meeting, the chambers were filled with signs saying things like “Let Us Choose” and “See My Smile.”  Immediately after the vote, the overwhelmingly anti-mandate crowd burst into applause and cheered the decision in the lobby for several minutes. 

Some mandate opponents question how effective masks will be when kids don’t wear them properly.  They say children will take the masks off during lunch and while they play outside, so they wonder if masks during class would prevent any kind of spread.  Wendy Wixom says health officials don’t recommend the same public safety practices for other viruses that they do for COVID-19.

Wixom said, “It doesn’t make any sense to send them to school in a mask when they hadn’t been doing it for the flu.”

She also says her deaf son struggled in school when students were required to cover their faces.

“When we were closed down with quarantines, he wouldn’t sit still long enough for online learning.  Even in-person, when everybody was wearing masks, it was too hard for him.  He can’t hear,” she said.

Other county residents, like Candice Li, say they don’t oppose masks, per se.  They just don’t believe it’s a decision that should be made by the government.

(Dr. Jennifer Brinton, at podium, speaks at a press conference supporting a mask mandate after the County Council’s vote. Photo: Paul Nelson)

Li said, “We want to be able to have the choice.  We don’t want the choice to be made for us.”

On the other side of the issue, a small group of mandate supporters held a press conference after the vote.  Doctor Jennifer Brinton says the council dropped the proverbial ball, blowing a good opportunity to protect children and their families.

“Politicians are our elected officials, and one of the jobs they have is to make choices that keep us safe,” Brinton said.

Physicians’ Assistant Erika Tse predicts Utahns will see a large increase in COVID-19 cases along with more quarantines, like what’s happening in southern states.  She says there’s too much that’s unknown about the Delta variant, which is why masks are important.

“I mean, we know that it’s more transmissible.  The R(eproduction) factor is nine, vs. the R factor of the Alpha last year was two,” according to Tse.

Read more: A guide to “R” – the pandemic’s misunderstood metric

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