Salt Lake County opts not to extend mask mandate

Face covering requirement will end statewide on April 10 unless counties choose to take local action.

Citing decreasing COVID-19 cases and growing vaccinations, the Salt Lake County Council announced Wednesday that it would not extend the county’s mask mandate.

The county’s health director, Gary Edwards, recommended against a continued face covering requirement in a letter to the County Council Wednesday morning. It opened with a rebuke of the Utah Legislature, which passed HB294 during the legislative session, lifting mask mandates statewide on Saturday unless counties and their local health departments choose to extend them.

“With HB294, the Legislature put themselves in a no-lose position: they promised the public they would eliminate the mask requirement based on a date, rather than data,” Edwards wrote, “while still shielding themselves from any responsibility for an increase in cases by saying it was the responsibility of local health departments and county legislative bodies to continue the requirement.”

[Read more: In apparent defiance of state law, Mayor Erin Mendenhall says mask mandate will continue in Salt Lake City]

Masks must still be worn in county buildings, state buildings, on UTA buses and trains, in public schools, in gathering larger than 50 people and at businesses that choose to require them.

(Story continues below letter.)

Council Chair Steve DeBry said he respected Edwards’ decision and agreed that vaccinations, rather than mask-wearing, will get the county to the point of declaring the pandemic over.

“From the beginning I have said that the council should follow the data,” DeBry said at a news conference. “I agree with those who say that we should listen to the experts in public health as a part of the decision-making process.”

Council members urged county residents to respect businesses that have their own mask mandates and to respect people who continue to wear them.

“Just because we are not implementing a mask mandate does not mean the pandemic is over,” said council member Aimee Winder Newton. “We still need to rely on all our Salt Lake County residents to use their good judgment.”

Council member Laurie Stringham said she had anxieties about lifting the mask mandate.

“We really, really need to focus on being kind to each other,” Stringham said. “The pandemic has put some stressors on our country, our communities, our families and each of us as an individual.”

County Mayor Jenny Wilson issued the state’s first mask mandate last June, crediting it for a subsequent decline in coronavirus infections.

But under HB294 counties can only enact their own mandates with a recommendation from the local health department and approval of the local commission or council. Earlier this week, Wilson urged Salt Lake County residents to continue to mask up, noting that only about a third of the county has immunity or vaccinations, and that children still can’t get the vaccine.

“There is still risk to those not vaccinated,” Wilson wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday. “We are closing in on the end of this challenge. Let’s live what we all know works and continue to wear masks until our workers and kids get vaccinated or until herd immunity is reached.”

Some counties have decided to continue local mask mandates, including Grand County. But all such requirements must end once the state has a 14-day COVID-19 caseload of less than 191 per 100,000 people, coronavirus patients occupy less than 15% of ICU beds, and the state obtains 1.63 million units of first-dose vaccine — even if the shots haven’t been administered.

In his letter, Edwards noted that Salt Lake County’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 has declined to 179 since Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB294 into law on March 24. About 40,000 county residents are receiving their first dose of vaccine each week. About 80% of the highest-risk age groups in the county are at least partially vaccinated.

“The primary public health message at this time in the pandemic must promote vaccination,” Edwards wrote. “We must minimize anything that distracts from that message.”

The health director and council members urged people who are not vaccinated to continue wearing masks, and for vaccinated people to mask up whenever they’re in a public setting around people they don’t know.

Edwards said he may ask the council to go in a different direction after Saturday if the county has two consecutive weeks of a 10% or greater increase in COVID-19 cases, if infections grow to 245 people per 100,000, if ICU beds see a surge or if positive test rates exceed 7.5% over two weeks.