Salt Lake County Council has a unique opportunity to find middle ground on masks, Robert Gehrke says

Three weeks could offer us priceless data on how to protect Utah school kids from the coronavirus

(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. Robert Gehrke says the County Council should give Dunn's elementary school mask mandate a three-week window to prove its worth.

Tears flowed, voices were raised and pleas were made for reason and responsibility as passionate advocates argued Tuesday over whether the Salt Lake County Council should or should not require young, unvaccinated students to wear masks to start the school year.

At the end of the marathon hearing, Salt Lake County Health Director Angela Dunn announced she would issue an order requiring masks for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade.

Minutes later, the county council chairman Steve DeBry said he would call an emergency session so Republican members could — and it appears almost certainly will — vote to rescind the requirement.

If they do, it will mean we start the year with an infection rate for kids age 5 to 11 that is four times what it was at this point last year, youth hospitalizations increasing and a variant we’re still grappling to understand, all of that while our best tool to fight the virus among kids — universal masking — is strictly voluntary.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Right now, the county council has a unique opportunity to choose the middle ground and chart a sensible course that in the process will provide us with facts and data to guide our decisions going forward.

It would require letting the county’s current order stand and having children wear masks — but just for the first three weeks of the year. It’s not long, but should give Salt Lake County enough time to compare the results to schools in Davis and Utah counties (which almost assuredly will not be requiring masking) and figure out if the experiment is working.

Are fewer kids in Salt Lake County infected? Are fewer kids ending up in the hospital than in neighboring districts?

For some parents, even one day with a mask will be seen as a unacceptable intrusion on their rights and freedom. Those parents should be encouraged to keep their kids home and be provided remote learning options, at least for the first three weeks, while we see how this plays out.

If, after that trial period, the evidence points to the masks being effective, common sense would dictate that the council would be wise to leave it in place, reassessing as we go.

If the opponents are right and we see no difference between Salt Lake and surrounding areas, then the council can vote to rescind the mandate at that point.

And if the nightmare scenario plays out and the delta variant tears through all the schools in the state, then masks are the least of our problems and we’ll need to fundamentally reassess how we approach education this year.

The value here is that we get real-world information specific to Utah schools enabling council members to make a more rational, informed decision. As an added bonus, it will move us three weeks closer to knowing when these elementary school-aged children might be eligible for vaccines.

And, oh hey, we just might prevent some children from the dire consequences of catching COVID in the process.

There’s another alternative I think is worth exploring. The “endgame” legislation passed by Republican lawmakers forbids local school districts from requiring masks. But, as I read it, there is nothing in the law that prevents the county health department (with the approval of the council) from issuing a narrower mask requirement for specific districts — assuming the districts ask to have one enacted.

This way, Salt Lake City schools, for example, could require masks — something many parents, including Mayor Erin Mendenhall would like to see — while Canyons District may not.

And, again, we can monitor the data to see how different districts fare and whether or not the masks work.

All of this is to say that this seemingly intractable fight may not be so intractable after all. Yes, the battle lines are drawn between never-maskers and proponents of mandates and the walls between them are indeed high.

But between those polarized camps there is room for reason and flexibility, not to mention an opportunity to collect data that will enable facts, not factions, to drive our decisions.

The opportunity is there, provided the county council members have the wisdom and the political courage to seize it.