‘Blood is going to be on their hands’: Teachers and parents decry Salt Lake County’s vote to overturn mask mandate

One grassroots parents group plans to file a lawsuit against the Utah Legislature’s “endgame” bill, which allowed the repeal of Dr. Angela Dunn’s order for elementary schools.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erika Tse, the mother of a child affected by COVID-19, reacts to the county's vote against a mask mandate in schools on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Hours after the Salt Lake County Council met to repeal its own health department’s mask order for elementary schools, parents, teachers unions, physicians and nurses gathered to share their disappointment.

“There’s a lot of anticipation, a lot of anxiety among faculty and support staff in our schools of what to expect,” Brad Asay, president of the Utah chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said at a news conference outside the County Government Center. “And now, a tool has been taken away from them to be able to protect our students.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, issued a mask order earlier this week for K-6 schoolchildren to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students too young to get vaccinated.

After receiving thousands of emails and phone calls from county residents, as well as listening to hours of public comment from parents who supported Dunn’s order and from people who were tired of masking up their kids, the County Council held a special meeting Thursday afternoon. Along party lines, the council members voted 6-3 to strike down the mandate.

“It’s now in the hands of those in our schools to do the best they can,” Asay said, “and in the hands of God.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brad Asay, president of American Federation of Teachers-Utah, reacts to the county's vote against a mask mandate in schools on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

The delta variant of COVID-19 rapidly spreading throughout the United States is more contagious. Nearly 94,000 children have tested positive for the disease in the past week as schools reopen throughout the nation — and a physician with Primary Children’s Hospital noted that 2.5 times more kids have tested positive compared with last year.

Schools in numerous states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana, have shut down or quarantined students mere weeks or days after opening due to delta outbreaks.

“We have to put masks on our children. It’s not about freedom, it’s not about USA,” said Erika Tse, a pediatric physician assistant, referring to the exuberant chants of many anti-maskers after the County Council’s vote. “It’s about science and about protecting the community.”

Tse, whose own child became sick with COVID-19 last year in an outbreak before schools issued mask mandates, predicted the County Council’s decision would lead to a “travesty” in the community.

“Blood is going to be on their hands as a council,” she said. “They chose not to follow the science.”

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said the state’s educators are “near a breaking point.”

“The thought of once again riding the COVID roller coaster, bouncing back from in-person to remote learning,” Matthews said, “… is more than teachers can bear. And it’s so distressing for our students and student learning.”

Christopher Phillips, a father of three children too young to get vaccinated and organizer of the grassroots #ConcernedCoalition, pleaded with parents to mask up their kids and get the vaccine if eligible.

“This battle is not over,” Phillips said. “Our children deserve our fight.”

He called on Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah lawmakers to take action, as their “endgame” pandemic bill from last spring had turned local health orders into “political footballs.” That law lifted public health orders after certain thresholds were met, including daily case rates, available intensive care unit beds and available vaccines.

The state has since exceeded the thresholds for positive cases and the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds.

“Our Utah values teach us that we should love one another and to serve one another,” Phillips said. “This is a call to action.”

Moments after the news conference ended, the #ConcernedCoalition announced it planned to file a lawsuit challenging the endgame law.

“While the actions of the County Council have mobilized us, our frustration is not with them alone,” the group wrote in a news release. “The Utah State Legislature are the ones that blocked districts from making their own rules and empowered unqualified County Council members over local public health officials.”