Utah’s statewide mask mandate will end April 10 under a law passed in the final hours of the legislative session Friday.
Gov. Spencer Cox, who is not expected to veto the bill, talked about this move in an appearance Saturday on Fox News.
“We anticipate that by April 1st every adult in the state of Utah will be eligible for the vaccine,” Cox said, adding that he also expects Utah will “have abut 1.5 million vaccines in the state by April 10, when that mandate goes away.”
The governor said he doesn’t know whether that April date is “too early or too late,” but he pointed to the recent expansion of vaccine eligibility in the state.
Starting Monday, Utahns age 50 and older can start making appointments to get their COVID-19 vaccinations. Residents over age 18 with certain health conditions can also seek a vaccination. Those new qualifying conditions are diabetes (Type 1 or Type 2), chronic kidney disease, or obesity — people with a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher. The previous BMI threshold was 40 or higher.
“We feel really good about where we’re headed, and where we’re going to end up,” Cox said on Fox.
The governor clarified that while the broader mask mandate will lift next month, masks will still be required in schools and for large gatherings.
HB294 — which was dubbed the “pandemic endgame” bill — also allows local health departments to require face coverings with approval from their county commissions or councils. And officials could also continue requiring them for gatherings of 50 or more people who can’t physically distance. However, these orders and other restrictions applying to businesses and events would expire as soon as the state meets several conditions described by the bill:
The state’s 14-day case rate falls below 191 per 100,000 people;
Intensive care units are no more than 15% filled with COVID-19 patients over a seven-day average; and
The federal government has allocated 1,633,000 first doses of the coronavirus vaccine to Utah.
A previous version of the bill would have lifted the mandate as soon as the governor signed the legislation, but that was changed before the session ended Friday night.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored HB294, said he worked with Cox’s office and the state health department in creating the final version, which he said was the “quickest way” to get rid of mask requirements.
“Everyone wants to end the mask mandates. We don’t want these to go on one day longer than is absolutely necessary,” Cox said Saturday. So, his office worked closely with the legislature to figure out the right moment to do that, while also focusing on vaccinations, he said.
It’s estimated that about a third of Utahns now have immunity to the COVID-19 virus, but Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, cautioned residents Friday against lifting restrictions and tossing aside face masks too quickly.
“We’re still in a race between vaccination and variants,” Webb said. “It’s important to remember that the virus is just a machine … whose sole purpose is to survive by infecting others. And it will continue to do that as long as there are susceptible individuals in the population. It doesn’t sleep, doesn’t care about politics. It doesn’t care that we’re all so tired of these precautions.”
Only when the number of Utahns who have been vaccinated grows will the state “be able to safely pass the baton from the things that we’re doing to our immunity. And right now, we’re not there yet,” he said.
Rep. Suzanne Harrison, who is a medical doctor, raised concerns on the House floor Friday about potentially lifting the mask mandate too early.
“I know it’s inconvenient” and that “everyone wants to get back to normal,” the Democrat from Draper said. But masks are part of why Utah is heading in the “right direction,” she said, and they “have saved lives.”
“All of us have lost friends or loved ones to this awful disease,” Harrison said, pointing to Rep. John Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove. He appeared virtually in the House Thursday while recovering from COVID-19 after spending the session in the intensive care unit at a hospital.
Harrison told her colleagues she would vote against the “pandemic endgame” bill, saying, “We shouldn’t celebrate victory before the race is won.”
On Fox News Saturday, Cox touted Utah’s low death rate from the virus and the state’s unemployment rate, which dipped to 3.1% in January. The national rate was 6.3% for that month.
The governor also referred to the $100 million tax cut passed by the Legislature this session, and “record spending in infrastructure and education funding.”
“We didn’t lock the state completely down. We took measures that were necessary to keep people safe. And it’s paid off in the long run,” Cox said.