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Mendenhall made the right call, and legislators will punish her for it, Robert Gehrke says

It took courage for the mayor to protect kids and communities, knowing petty payback was inevitable

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall encourages citizens to keep wearing masks, after the state mask mandate ends, during a news conference in front of Santo Taco shop, Friday, March 19, 2021.

Students in Salt Lake City schools filed into classes Tuesday masked up and ready to learn.

Meantime, some Republican lawmakers are plotting to teach Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall a lesson about what happens when you cross the Legislature.

Last week, Mendenhall issued an emergency order requiring masks in schools to protect kids and her community, making the city one of three jurisdictions — along with Grand and Summit counties — with such measures in place.

The self-appointed medical experts in the Utah Legislature blew a gasket.

“There is no public safety threat, no disaster, and no threat of a disaster to justify her order mandating masks in schools,” House Majority Whip Mike Schultz wrote of the order. “She hasn’t been granted blanket authority to do whatever she wants. Her order is NOT enforceable.”

There may need to be “ramifications” for mayors who “abuse that power,” warned the Republican from Hooper, which is among the most COVID-infected towns in Utah.

Draper Republican Rep. Jeff Stenquist piled on, Tweeting that it is “unfortunate when the legislature is compelled to put restrictions on cities because of one Mayor or City Council (usually #SLC) overstepping.”

“Local governments statewide have long been paying for the sins of Mayors in SLC,” he wrote.

“Sins” is an interesting word choice, since that word is defined as a “transgression against divine law.” But Legislature’s divine power can’t change the fact that Utah’s COVID numbers for young people are far more perilous than last year and keep getting worse.

During this same week last August, we had 134 COVID cases in kids age 5-13. Cases doubled after the first month of classes — and that was with schools doing staggered schedules, hybrid models, some completely remote.

And we had mask requirements.

So far this week, 945 kids in that age group have been infected, seven times as many as last year. This year, however, we don’t have the same precautions in schools. What we do have is a Delta variant.

States that tried to open schools without masks saw terrible results. In Florida, one school district convened an emergency meeting to adopt a mask mandate after more than 10,000 students and 300 faculty and staff had to quarantine in the first week of the school year.

In Mississippi, more than 20,000 students had to quarantine, and one 13-year-old died — the fifth child death from the virus in that state.

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

If our goal is — as Republican legislative leaders have attested — ensuring kids get the best education possible, it has to begin with keeping them safe and in class. And until they can be vaccinated, masks are the most effective tool we have to achieve that goal.

Last year, Dr. Adam Hersh, a pediatric infectious disease expert at the University of Utah, and his team studied 20 schools in the Granite School District, and the team had five basic takeaways:

• Students are capable of wearing masks without problems;

• Transmission in schools with masks was very, very low — less than 1% compared to 10% to 50% in other settings;

• When in-school transmission occurred, there was usually a failure in mask use;

• In more than 100 situations where a student had close contact with an infected individual, not one individual who was masked became infected;

• In the small number of cases where in-school transmission did occur, 60% went home and infected someone else.

That secondary transmission is critical, because right now we have more than three times as many people in hospitals and intensive care beds as we had last August. We are pushing up against maximum capacity, elective surgeries are being postponed and hard decisions may be around the corner about apportioning care.

All of this is to make that point that Mendenhall’s mask requirement is not political grandstanding. It was a necessary step, not just to protect kids (although it will), but to protect the state’s teetering hospitals.

A few weeks ago I suggested that mayors likely had the authority to issue these kinds of restrictions and I still believe it was the right decision, both morally and legally — despite lawmakers’ claims to the contrary.

That’s because Republican legislators neutered the governor’s emergency powers and they scaled back the authority of local health departments to, well, do their job. But they did NOT touch the long-standing emergency powers granted to Utah mayors, who are given broad authority to issue orders to protect public health.

Those are powers that Mendenhall used repeatedly, issuing 20 such orders since the pandemic began — declaring the state of emergency, suspending parking enforcement, requiring masks in city buildings, restricting the use of parks, expanding outdoor dining options, and limiting mass gatherings.

One of those 20 orders was different. It implemented a curfew in the city amid the protests for racial justice last summer. Legislators, of course, didn’t have a problem with that one.

Actually, they didn’t seem to have a problem with any of them or, if they did, they didn’t take the opportunity to do anything about it. Now it’s different, because masks have become a supercharged hot-button for the GOP base.

In his rant, Rep. Schultz contends a mayor’s emergency powers are to be used in the event of fires and earthquakes or a tuberculosis outbreak. “The difference is clear,” he said.

And he’s right. Between 2016 and 2019, Utah averaged 26.2 tuberculosis cases annually, compared to more than 450,000 COVID cases in the past 18 months — so COVID is roughly 11,500 times worse. The difference is indeed clear.

What is also clear is that these thin-skinned Republican legislators don’t like having their power questioned period — and in this case by a woman.

It doesn’t matter that neither of these legislators nor their constituents — nor any Republican legislator, for that matter — are affected by Salt Lake City’s requirement — except for the fact that there might be an open hospital bed if they do get sick.

Never mind that their peevish payback flies in the face of their often-repeated belief in local control.

Ignore that they are wrong about the data, the science and the law.

They will see to it that the mayor, and the city, pays for her impudence.

Mendenhall had to know retribution would come. There is a long track record of it. Yet she did it anyway, demonstrating the courage to protect children and, in the process, citizens around the state. And Salt Lake City is damn lucky she did.

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