Utah’s statewide mask mandate will expire April 10, now that Gov. Spencer Cox has signed legislation that lays the groundwork for ending public health restrictions enacted during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cox on Wednesday also put his stamp of approval to two other bills brought forward in response to the COVID-19 crisis response — one to encourage a return to in-person instruction in Utah schools and another that would curb his own and any future governor’s executive powers during a long-term emergency.
On the other hand, he vetoed a bill that would’ve required state or local leaders to schedule a meeting with individual school districts or private schools before issuing a public heath order affecting them.
“Communication with affected entities is critical in an emergency, but SB187 provides unnecessary and potentially problematic hurdles for health departments to respond to public health emergencies in their communities, which may hamper a timely response,” Cox wrote in a letter explaining his veto decision. “While this bill was contemplated with the current scenario or a long term pandemic in mind, it will most likely be applied to different types of community health emergencies.”
In the same letter, Cox wrote that his first-year administration “negotiated in good faith” with the Legislature during its recent session on a variety of bills dealing with the proper balance of emergency powers during a crisis.
The so-called “endgame” law endorsed Wednesday by Cox evolved from its initial form through an extensive back-and-forth between state legislators and members of the executive branch. Though HB294 lifts the statewide mask mandate April 10, it will still allow health officials to require face coverings in grade schools and for gatherings of 50 or more people who can’t physically distance. It also leaves open the possibility that local health departments could issue mask mandates with approval from their county commissions or councils.
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.
And Salt Lake County officials have said these thresholds could negate any local mask mandate, since the state could meet all three criteria by the time the statewide rules expire on April 10. Still, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Erin Mendenhall say officials in their administrations are reviewing the new law and evaluating the option of issuing local mask orders.
Even if the mask requirements vanish, Cox said during a Wednesday evening Facebook town hall that he hopes Utahns will continue to use face coverings in public.
“I don’t think that this will be a huge difference from what we’ve seen before. Before we had the mask mandate, we had lots of people wearing masks,” he said. “And we hope that people will continue to be safe and and wear their masks after April 10th. But that’s why I felt comfortable signing that bill.”
Altogether, Cox signed four bills on Wednesday and vetoed three others, while allowing three more to become law without his signature.
During his inaugural State of the State address, Cox warned lawmakers that he might exercise his veto power more frequently than past governors — but he said during Wednesday’s town hall that he didn’t end up using it as much as he’d expected this session.
“I had some some bills that I thought were problematic, that were on my veto list,” he said. “And the Legislature agreed with me that they were problematic, and they didn’t pass. They either were killed in committee or didn’t make it through the last week and the final day of the session.”
He blocked legislation on local government building regulations, saying the proposal could’ve put Utah communities at risk of being kicked out of a national flood insurance program. He also nixed a bill on hemp regulation, in part because of a provision that would’ve legalized the plant’s flower in a way that, he said, would cause confusion for police trying to distinguish it from illegal cannabis.
A bill limiting when voters can change their party affiliation will become law, but without an endorsement from Cox, who expressed concern that the change would hinder people who “may not readily know their affiliation from participating in the primary of their choice.” The lieutenant governor’s office, which oversees elections in the state, will make a concerted effort to spread the word about the new deadlines for party switches, he continued.
A Wednesday press release noted that among the 460 bills signed by Cox so far following the legislative session is one that will allow school kids to take a mental health day off. The absence will now be considered as “valid” an excuse as a physical illness, a family death, an approved school activity or another approved reason established by a school.