Updated pandemic ‘endgame’ bill would do away with most masks but leave face coverings in schools

The measure passed the Utah House on Wednesday and moves onto the Senate in the final days of session.

A Utah House lawmaker on Wednesday unveiled what he hopes is a compromise version of a pandemic “endgame” bill that would roll back the state’s general mask mandate while leaving in place face covering requirements for K-12 schools and large, crowded gatherings.

The legislation cleared the House by a 51-20 vote, over opposition from House Democrats who called it government overreach and a handful of Republicans who thought it should’ve eliminated all mask mandates immediately.

Rep. Paul Ray, the bill’s sponsor, said the latest version of his HB294 doesn’t completely satisfy him — but he suggested that it’s a proposal Gov. Spencer Cox and the state health department could stomach.

“We’re trying to find a way to say we’re done. And I think this bill is what does that,” the Clearfield Republican told House colleagues. “We actually give our constituents the hope and the light that we’re just about through this.”

The newest language in his bill would, among other things, terminate the state’s general mask order immediately but would allow local health departments to require face coverings with approval from their county commissions or councils. Health officials could also continue to require them in grade schools and for gatherings of 50 or more people who are unable to physically distance.

However, restrictions applying to businesses and events, local mask requirements and face-covering directives for large gatherings would expire as soon as the state meets several conditions described by the bill:

  • The state’s 14-day case rate falls below 191 per 100,000 people;

  • Intensive care units are no more than 15% filled with COVID-19 patients over a seven-day average; and

  • The federal government has allocated 1,633,000 first doses of the coronavirus vaccine to Utah.

A Utah Department of Health spokesman said the state currently has a 14-day case rate of 296 per 100,000 people and an intensive care utilization of 17%. It’s been allocated 518,330 first doses so far.

Any K-12 mask requirement or other school-related public health orders still remaining by July 1 would expire, under the bill.

Senate leaders who spoke to reporters Wednesday said they’d be willing to give Ray’s bill a look but suggested the state might not need law to put an end to the pandemic.

“We seem to have started a pandemic without legislation,” Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, joked.

And although Ray presented the bill as the product of negotiations with the executive branch, Cox did not express outright support for the latest version Wednesday.

“We appreciate the Legislature’s willingness to listen to the input of public health officials and all stakeholders as they work through this process,” Cox said in a prepared statement. “We’re watching this bill closely because the stakes are so high for the health of Utahns. We need to get this right.”

Tensions between the executive branch and state legislators have flared up periodically throughout the pandemic and rose up again Wednesday, as House Majority Leader Francis Gibson complained that Cox hasn’t followed other GOP governors in lifting mask mandates.

“We are doing this just to encourage [Cox] to do things that other governors have seen fit to do?” Gibson, R-Mapleton, asked.

“Yes,” Ray responded.

President Joe Biden has encouraged states not to begin tossing out their COVID-19 restrictions, indicating that doing so would be the result of “Neanderthal thinking,” USA Today has reported.

Before passing Ray’s bill, which is now in the Senate’s hands, House lawmakers debated whether they should eliminate all mask mandates, even for schools and gatherings. Rep. Phil Lyman, an outspoken critic of many COVID-19 restrictions, said he doesn’t want Utah’s children to have to wear face coverings in the classroom any longer.

“To me, it’s cruel and unusual that we let our kids be subject to a face mask mandate at this point,” the Blanding Republican said. “What I would really, really love is for our kids on Monday morning to be able to get on the bus without these masks.”

But a couple of House Republicans argued that Lyman’s proposed amendment would actually have an opposite effect from what he intends, since it would increase the likelihood that the governor would veto the entire bill.

While the Legislature could try to override the veto, they said, that process would take time and delay the reversal of the state’s overall mask mandate.

“I guess it would be nice in our world if the only body that we had to get to agree to something was this body right here,” Rep. Jim Dunnigan said. “But that’s not the way it works. It just isn’t.”

Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said Ray’s bill doesn’t accomplish everything he’d want but is a “significant step” and urged his colleagues to vote against Lyman’s amendment, which failed when it came to a vote a few moments later.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison spoke against Ray’s bill as a whole, saying that state lawmakers shouldn’t be overriding public health officials in trying to respond to a pandemic.

“I think this should be left to consultation with medical experts,” said the Draper Democrat, who is a physician. “We all want to get back to normal. But I don’t think us legislating this prescriptive type of language is going to help our economy or help the people of Utah.”

Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government accountability group, said Ray’s proposal takes the wrong approach to easing pandemic restrictions and choosing an “arbitrary end date” to mask restrictions in schools.

“After a year of sacrifices and struggles, the last thing Utahns need is to risk a fourth wave because over-eager lawmakers are personally tired of the pandemic and pushed the state back to normalcy too soon,” Lauren Simpson, the alliance’s policy director, said in a prepared statement. “In spite of our difficulties and differences, we’ve held together for this long. We should be willing to go the last mile in order to finally defeat COVID once and for all.”

- Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this report.