Dr. Angela Dunn will issue order for children in kindergarten through sixth grade to wear masks in Salt Lake County schools

County Mayor Jenny Wilson says kids wearing masks in schools is “far less” of a drama than COVID-19 outbreaks and quarantines.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department Dr. Angela Dunn and Salt Lake County mayor Jenny Wilson arrive at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

It’s official: The Salt Lake County Health Department’s executive director, Dr. Angela Dunn, will be issuing an order Wednesday that requires children in the county — from kindergarten to sixth grade — wear masks in schools, in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Dunn sent a written notice of intent to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson at 12:12 p.m. Tuesday — which, under the law passed this spring by the Utah Legislature, gives the mayor 24 hours to terminate the order.

“It is in the best public health interest, and the interest of our students,” Dunn said, “for them to be in masks in the fall — to keep them in in-person learning with the least disruption possible, and the least health concerns possible.”

The order will be limited to children between kindergarten and sixth grade, Dunn said, because they are not eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Those now are limited, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to people 12 and older; approval of vaccines for younger children isn’t expected until fall or winter.

Wilson, appearing alongside Dunn at a Tuesday afternoon news conference, said she would not terminate the order — which, under the new state law, she could do.

“This decision is now in the hands of the County Council,” Wilson said. “We’re hoping the council doesn’t meet, that they let the request stand.”

According to the law, Dunn must give Wilson 24 hours’ notice before officially issuing the order. She did that Tuesday at 12:12 p.m. After the order becomes official, on Wednesday at 12:12 p.m., the County Council can act — and, by law, is given a week to decide whether to overturn the order.

“We’re asking them to work more quickly, and not wait until next week, knowing that the schools need some assurance one way or the other,” Wilson said. The mayor said she has talked to the council’s chair, Steve DeBry, about calling a meeting as soon as Thursday.

An hour after Wilson and Dunn spoke to the media, DeBry announced on Facebook that he would call a special meeting of the council for Thursday at 2 p.m. “for a vote on a resolution to overturn the mask mandate.”

Based on Senate Bill 195, passed in the Legislature’s special session this spring, county leaders can overturn an order issued by a county’s health department. If county leaders don’t overturn such an order, the Legislature can through a joint resolution.

Dunn said last week that she would not issue a mask order, which she has the authority to do, without getting council support beforehand. Dunn said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that “because the County Council can overturn it immediately, it is essential that I seek alignment with them before writing any mandate. I don’t want to see this play out in the media, full of drama.”

In the last week, four of the nine Salt Lake County Council members told The Tribune they do not support a mask mandate now. Two members said they do, and three have not expressed how they would vote.

Dunn said she talked one-on-one with council members, and “they said they wanted to see a mask order in their hands, before they were willing to decide whether they would seek to support it or overturn it.”

As for the “drama” of a protracted debate between Dunn and council members, Wilson added, “there’s far less drama in a school where all kids are wearing masks than a spread of COVID within that school, and kids being sent home to address illness or to be put into quarantine or isolation.”

Among those in Dunn’s corner is Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. In a letter to the council she posted on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, Mendenhall urged council members to support whatever recommendation Dunn makes, “knowing that it comes from an extensive evaluation of scientific data and is the best strategy to protect our children who are so vulnerable at this time.”

Mendenhall wrote that “a potential for three or four children to be hospitalized with COVID-19 each week if nothing is done, combined with data showing the correlation between mask use and a reduction in cases is clear and straightforward.”

The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, also said it supports Dunn’s decision on a mask mandate.

“We all want what is best for our students to learn and thrive, which this year, absolutely depends on our schools being safe and remaining open for in-person learning,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews in a statement. “The best way to address these issues is to slow the spread of the virus by following the recommendations given by Dr. Angela Dunn and her colleagues, the medical experts at the state and county health departments.”