Salt Lake County health board calls for mask mandate for public school students in grades K-6

Board calls a mask order “essential to protecting” health of students.

FILE - In this Aug. 17, 2020, file photo, students walk into Liberty Elementary School during the first day of class in Murray, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The Salt Lake County Board of Health is urging local leaders to require masks for kindergartners through sixth-graders attending county public schools this fall to help prevent COVID-19 from sweeping through classrooms of unvaccinated students.

The health board Thursday morning voted unanimously to send a letter supporting a mandate to county Mayor Jenny Wilson and the Salt Lake County Council.

“A mask requirement for students in kindergarten through sixth grade is essential to protecting their health, as they are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination. Salt Lake County has had 11,529 of cases in children under 12 years, 58 required hospitalization, 27 were diagnosed with MIS-C, and 1 has died,” the board wrote in the letter. “Without prevention measures, the number of children with COVID-19 will undoubtedly grow much higher once school starts.”

Under a law passed by state legislators earlier this year, the health department can put forward a public health order requiring face coverings in classrooms, but the county council can immediately overturn it. And while Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the county health department and former state epidemiologist, has warned that failing to take prevention measures will mean more children end up hospitalized, she’s made clear she won’t issue a public health order if it’s going to be vetoed by the council.

“Given the ... limitations, it is essential to secure your support prior to the issuance of a mask requirement,” the health board wrote.

While local health boards generally have control over their health departments’ actions, the legislature’s new law gives the power to initiate restrictions in health emergencies to local health “departments.”

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office has advised the county’s board of health that the wording means they cannot simply vote to issue a mask order; only Dunn, as the department director, can do that. Even if she does, it’s unclear whether a mask mandate would ever make its way into classrooms.

County leaders are coming under intense lobbying from anti-mask groups who are vehemently opposed to a face covering mandate in schools. Earlier this week, mask opponents packed a Salt Lake County Council meeting and spent hours testifying against such requirements, which they see as government interference in their parenting decisions.

But high-risk families and others worried about sending their unvaccinated elementary-age kids to school are clamoring for universal masking — saying that letting students opt out would put others at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

This story will be updated.