Although a new Utah law means mask mandates will end statewide this weekend, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said nothing will change in the capital.
HB294, which lifts mask requirements Saturday, allows counties to extend their own local mandates. The Salt Lake County Council opted Wednesday not to do so. But Mendenhall said the law does not apply to her own local authority and emergency powers. She issued a proclamation extending the current mask mandate, in line with her numerous other declared local emergencies since March 2020 that are related to the pandemic.
“This proclamation does not conflict with state’s so-called COVID ‘endgame’ bill,” Mendenhall said at a news conference. “As a city, we will be guided by public health data. Protecting the health of our residents will always be my highest priority.”
Under the proclamation, anyone within city boundaries age two or over, who is medically able, must wear a face covering that covers both the nose and mouth in public areas, including outdoors, when social distancing is not possible. Those who violate the mandate face a class B misdemeanor, a fine up to $1,000 and possible imprisonment up to six months.
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The lawmaker who pushed through HB294 strongly disagreed the mayor had the ability to impose her own city mandate.
“She has no authority to do that,” Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The new state law ends all pandemic-related public health measures, including new local mask mandates, after three criteria are met regarding intensive care unit capacity, case rates per 100,000 people and first-dose vaccines obtained by the state.
“This was not a choice based on science or public health interests,” Mendenhall said, calling HB294 “premature” and “arbitrary.”
Cases in the city have plateaued rather than declined, the mayor said. Every neighborhood remains at “high” or “very high” rates of infection, based on the state’s own definition.
And health disparities continue. Only a quarter of residents in Rose Park and Glendale have received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, Mendenhall said, compared to 50% in the Avenues and on the east bench.
“We need to keep doing what has worked,” Mendenhall said. “Wearing masks.”
But Ray, sponsor of the so-called “pandemic endgame” law, said the legislation clearly states that the mandate can be extended only by a vote of a county governing body, not individual cities.
“I think she knows she doesn’t have the authority to do that,” Ray said of Mendenhall.
The lawmaker suggested the mayor might be able to require masks for city workers acting as an employer. She may also have the ability to require masks in city buildings, but that might be a bit of a gray area.
“The sad thing is this will cause a lot of unnecessary contention in the community,” said Ray. “I’m not surprised by some of the things that come out of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. All this will do is create problems that don’t need to happen.”
Ray conceded, however, that there’s not much the Legislature can do if Mendenhall does attempt to extend the mask mandate. While a lawsuit is a possibility, Ray said that’s probably not worth the effort.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, also disagreed with Mendenhall’s decision, saying he doesn’t see such orders as the proper role of city leaders.
“This week, public health officials with the Salt Lake County Health Department determined a standalone mask mandate is not warranted based on local health data and current trends,” Wilson said in a text message to The Tribune. “I do not believe a city government should place requirements on its citizens that override the recommendation of local health experts.”
At least one lawmaker — Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City — quickly hailed the mayor’s move.
“@slcmayor is right - continue wearing masks. Not until we get our #covid transmission rate down first,” tweeted Kitchen, who voted against HB294.
Matt Caputo of Caputo’s Market and Deli pleaded with residents and visitors in the city to continue wearing masks.
He said incidents of his employees facing irate, difficult customers were once rare. That changed with the pandemic and Salt Lake County’s mask requirements, where his workers found themselves grappling with “very angry” people up to 10 times each day.
“People were burning out. They were leaving the industry,” Caputo said. “It truly became one of the hardest parts of the pandemic to deal with.”
He said the statewide mask mandate was like flipping a switch. Customers became more understanding. He fears front-line workers in food service and retail will again face mistreatment and concerns over their own health after Saturday.
“Most essential workers live paycheck to paycheck, they don’t have a choice whether to come into work or not,” he said. “They don’t have a choice whether to be in constant contact with hundreds of people a day.”
Despite vaccinations being open to all adult Utahns, Caputo said some of his workers weren’t able to get scheduled for a first dose until May 1.
“I’ve heard, ‘Well, as a business, you can leave your mask policy in place,’” Caputo said.
But those statements, he said, show lawmakers aren’t listening to small-business owners’ needs.
“I’d like to see the public officials ... try to explain this policy to an angry, oftentimes very large man, eight to nine times a day, who think that we’re threatening their freedom,” Caputo said. “It’s leaving us on our own.”
— Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this report.
5:45 p.m., April 7, 2021: This story has been updated to include Mendenhall’s proclamation document and a summary of its mandate.