‘Don’t need that drama’ — Salt Lake County health director says she won’t issue school masks mandate if officials won’t back it

Health experts say three or four children could be hospitalized with COVID-19 each week in the county if officials do nothing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rebecca Olson of Highland, expresses her opposition to any possible future mask mandates in schools as she shakes her hands in quiet support of those speaking in opposition to masks to the Salt Lake County Council during a council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

When angry anti-maskers descended on a Salt Lake County meeting last week, identifying themselves as “Mama Bears” and reciting apocalyptic Bible passages, they may have been shouting into the void.

Not only was there no plan to enact any coronavirus restrictions — the odds of any mask order in Utah’s largest and most politically divided county appear to be dwindling.

Four of the county’s nine council members already have said they will not at this time support a mask requirement for grade schoolers, who are too young to be vaccinated and are about to gather, unmasked, in some of the nation’s most crowded classrooms as coronavirus cases spike.

Meanwhile, multiple other county officials say they are waiting for someone else to make the first move.

“I don’t plan to recommend any mandate that you guys would overturn immediately,” Dr. Angela Dunn, director of the county health department and Utah’s former state epidemiologist, told the County Council. “Our parents, our students, our teachers don’t need that drama to play out publicly.”

But it’s unclear whether the elected county leaders would overturn a mask requirement for young children — and multiple council members say they are waiting for a definitive recommendation from Dunn before they make a decision.

“Right now, it’s premature to even comment on it,” said council chairman Steve DeBry, days after Dunn presented a graph titled “Mask Mandates Decrease COVID-19 Transmission” and reported that without more precautions, at least one child on average would be hospitalized for COVID-19 every other day once the school year begins. Every hospital in the county already is at or overcapacity, she added, and burnout among health care workers has left many health care systems understaffed.

“I took from it she wasn’t going to recommend a mask mandate,” DeBry said. She was going to wait for further data and information and further time to see exactly where she lands on this.”

Councilwoman Ann Granato noted that state law requires any pandemic restrictions to originate with Dunn’s office, with the council only able to approve or reject them.

“I’ve got no comment unless something happens,” Granato said.

But with Dunn conditioning any mask order on assurances of council support, and council members declining to take a side without explicit action from Dunn, it’s unclear how the impasse will resolve.

Majority approval may be hard to get

The Utah Legislature voted in May to ban school districts from requiring masks in classrooms and gave elected county officials and the Legislature itself the power to overturn pandemic-related health orders by local health departments.

That means the only way for any Salt Lake County school to require masks is for the county health department to issue a mandate to which the County Council and county mayor don’t object. It’s possible, though unlikely, that the Legislature would convene in special session only to overrule a health order by a single county.

In Salt Lake County, two of the Democratic council members — Arlyn Bradshaw and Jim Bradley — said they would likely back Dunn if she concluded an order was necessary, but at least three of the seven remaining members would have to join them for a mandate to stand.

Four members, all Republicans, have already said they do not currently support a masking order for elementary schools. David Alvord and Dea Theodore at last week’s meeting affirmed their agreement with the anti-mask crowd, which organized in a large Facebook group to appear en masse in the council chambers and included a number of residents from outside Salt Lake County.

On Thursday, Aimee Winder Newton posted on social media that she would not support a mask mandate at this time. And Laurie Stringham wrote in a message to a reporter that she believes a mask mandate is “not necessary at this moment,” with vaccinations protecting the most susceptible and at-risk populations.

That leaves Granato, a Democrat, and Republicans DeBry and Richard Snelgrove. Snelgrove did not respond to The Tribune’s messages. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson was unavailable for an interview.

The Salt Lake County Board of Health voted last week in unanimous support of a mandate for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, releasing a statement that universal masking is “essential to protecting their health.” But attorneys for the county say the Legislature’s language requires the health department itself, not the health board, to initiate a mask mandate.

Politicians look for way around masking

Local health experts also are imploring elected leaders to get behind such restrictions, with nearly a dozen physicians and mothers — most of them employed by University of Utah Health — recently writing that the coronavirus “may cause severe and long-term side effects” in some children.

“Without a mask requirement in our public schools, we are putting our communities at risk for increasing COVID-19 illness and failing to protect our children,” they wrote to Salt Lake County Council members. “In order to maintain the safety of our children, the health of our community and the ability of our health care systems to care for the patients who need us, we ask you to consider requiring masks in schools.”

Dunn similarly warned the council that children were about to begin school with case rates higher and hospitals far more crowded than they were a year ago, when the start of classes set off a massive increase in cases.

Without prevention measures, she said, the county could see 60 new infections per day in kids younger than 12, with three or four children a week ending up in the hospital.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, delivers a COVID-19 briefing to the Salt Lake County Council during a council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

For some council members, though, those figures aren’t enough to justify mandatory masks.

“People are done with masks. They don’t want to send their kids to school with masks anymore. That message was so clear yesterday,” Theodore said in an interview a day after the testimony from anti-mask parents. “And the numbers just aren’t supporting the masks right now for children.”

In a Facebook post, Winder Newton wrote that, given concerns about masks damaging a kid’s ability to socialize and connect with others, “it’s best to let parents make a choice as to what is best for their child.” She indicated she might be willing to reconsider if a variant more harmful to children emerges.

Dunn said that variant is here already. With the delta variant now responsible for most of Utah’s coronavirus cases, more children were hospitalized for the virus in July than any other month except February, when cases were peaking, she said.

Some council members seemed to be grasping for alternative ways to protect students and the public from the virus.

During the recent meeting, Snelgrove relayed that his doctor advised him to take Vitamin D and zinc, exercise, get enough sleep and lose 20 pounds. Winder Newton asked Dunn what the health department was doing to help people strengthen their immune systems and urged more hand-washing for kids.

“If we’re going to mandate anything, I’d rather mandate that these kids wash their hands and that we hand-sanitize,” she said. “For kids, that’s a big factor, I’d assume.”

But COVID-19 primarily spreads through respiratory droplets and is not typically transmitted by touching surfaces. Furthermore, Dunn noted, the disease “does not discriminate” and has killed or seriously sickened young people with strong immune systems.

DeBry said he took Dunn’s warning to heart.

“I took it that she’s waving the red flag that things are on the upswing,” he said. “I took it that the delta variant was extremely dangerous to children. I took it she felt that masks could help prevent little children and students from getting ill, and/or dying, and/or winding up in the hospital, and/or inundating the hospitals. I took it that she said Primary Children’s [Hospital] was the only facility in our area that could actually handle this kind of influx, and they actually are at capacity.”

Children aren’t the only residents who need protecting; many schoolchildren who cannot be vaccinated have family members who were not fully protected by their vaccines because they are immunocompromised. If kids catch the virus at school, they could spread it to the sick and vulnerable in their households.

Dunn said she has received a bevy of messages from “parents begging for mandates. … The parents are telling me that their kid has a cardiac defect. … They’re caring for a parent who’s on chemo or an elderly grandparent in their household, and they’re afraid to send their kids to school unmasked in the event that they come home with the delta variant.”

‘Everybody else follows suit’

But an organized group of anti-mask crusaders from around the state is dead set against letting this happen. Dozens of parents at the council’s work session last week delivered two hours of testimony against universal face coverings in schools.

They blamed face coverings for everything from teenage acne to depression, while inaccurately contending that masking does not help prevent the spread of COVID-19. One man in a yellow “see my smile” shirt argued that cloth is too porous to stop the virus — and that flatulence proves it.

“How many times in your life has somebody tooted,” he said, “and it’s gone through their underwear and through their pants and you smell it?”

He then quoted Bible passages from the Book of Revelation.

One woman in a ball cap explained that she’d rushed to the hearing on short notice, throwing on her anti-mask shirt even though it was still wet from the laundry and creating a cardboard sign on her way to the council building.

She propped the finished product behind her while she spoke. It said, “masks are child abuse,” in large black lettering.

Though the Utah County mom wasn’t one of the council’s constituents, she told the members that her family still had a stake in how they approach masks.

“What happens in Salt Lake is kind of what happens in the state,” she said. “And everybody else follows suit.”

— Tribune reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this story.