The Salt Lake County Council’s three newest members — all Republicans — are calling on Mayor Jenny Wilson to end her mask mandate at recreation centers, libraries and other county facilities.
One member is also exploring ways to override the Democratic mayor’s executive authority in case she’s not willing.
“Although there is no current [overall] mask mandate in Salt Lake County, people entering county facilities and participating in county programs, including youth sports programs, are required under current policy to wear masks,” council member Dea Theodore said in a statement at a formal council meeting last week. “... I have directed my staff to prepare policy changes to lift the mask mandate.”
Theodore cited the number of vaccines administered in the state so far, including 860,000 in Salt Lake County, as well as plateauing COVID-19 cases.
But county health experts still recommend face coverings in public places. Barely 1 in 3 county residents have been fully inoculated against the coronavirus, and most children still aren’t able to receive the vaccine.
“Everybody has their comfort level on what the pandemic end is,” Theodore said Monday in an interview. “Everybody has their own health concerns. If [county residents] feel safer wearing masks, they’re free to continue to do so.”
Of course, as medical experts note, masks are intended to protect not only the wearer but also those around them.
Wilson enacted the state’s first mask mandate last summer and signed the county’s latest face covering policy April 9. The mayor was not available for comment Monday.
Theodore also posted her statement opposing the mayor’s policy on Facebook on May 4, shortly after a County Council meeting. Councilman David Alvord indicated his support for dropping the mask rule.
“The vaccine is available to anyone 16 and older, even without an appointment,” Alvord said in an interview Monday. “That definitely makes it so we have a more powerful tool in our community, if people choose to use it.”
Other county residents chimed in on Theodore’s Facebook post with mixed reactions.
“Love this,” said one poster from South Jordan. “Thanks for the great work you are doing!”
“Didn’t realize you were a medical professional or scientist,” a Salt Lake City resident countered. “I’ll listen to the experts.”
Angela Keddington, a registered nurse who lives in West Valley City, shared Theodore’s post and criticized the “rookie” councilwoman, who took office in January, for declaring the pandemic over prematurely.
“I have two kids that have been able to be vaccinated and two that haven’t been able to,” Keddington told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s just a little frustrating to me, I feel like it’s giving up on our kids.”
Worries about a ‘kid-demic’
Until this week, coronavirus vaccines had been approved only for those 16 and older (the Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 12-15 on Monday afternoon). Keddington worries about children being infected by virus variants that are potentially more potent and easily spread.
“My worst fear,” Keddington said, “is that we turn the pandemic into a kid-demic.”
Theodore, however, noted that the county’s own health director, Gary Edwards, did not recommend extending a mask mandate last month, when state law lifted the order April 10.
“I don’t see a need to have them in county facilities, at this point,” Theodore said. “Children have never been at significant risk or a significant vector for the virus.”
Edwards said Monday he made his mask recommendation after cases in the county began to decline and then plateaued in March.
“But more importantly, public health orders are seldom used,” Edwards said. “Public health provides information and recommendations. So we continue to recommend, whether it’s in a county building or whether it’s in a grocery store or any other place ... to use face coverings.”
Only 36% of county residents are fully vaccinated, Edwards said, and demand for the shot “unfortunately” continues to decline.
Infections among 10- to 19-year-olds represent the largest share of infections in recent weeks.
“As a society we’ve begun to think it’s OK for kids to have certain infectious diseases,” Edwards said. “There are some who think it’s OK for children to have measles. Measles is still a killer. We don’t know which children it’s going to affect in a serious way. Same thing with the coronavirus.”
Party backs end to mandate
On Saturday, the Salt Lake County Republican Party issued a statement backing Theodore’s effort to end mask requirements. It noted that GOP council members Alvord and Laurie Stringham also endorsed an end to required mask-wearing in county facilities.
“The Salt Lake County Republican Party has always supported individual responsibility and limits on government power,” the statement said. “This pandemic has proven that whether through faith in God, caring for one another, or private initiatives, we can overcome challenges threatening our community.”
Theodore, Alvord and Stringham were all elected last November and took office in January. In recent weeks, they have also conspicuously been the only individuals not wearing masks at council meetings — which are held at a county facility.
Theodore told The Tribune that the mayor’s requirements aside, the council chair merely recommended wearing masks at meetings.
Alvord said he finds it easier to speak into the microphone without a mask.
“I felt, as a vaccinated individual, it was worth the risk,” he said, adding that he’ll don a mask if he sits near someone who is uncomfortable.
“I would just like to encourage everyone to be respectful of people’s individual choices,” Alvord said. “We can now have a choice, including the choice not to get the vaccine. It’s one of those moments that we need to show grace to each other.”
Stringham did not respond to an interview request Monday. But the councilwoman previously said that she chooses not to wear a mask at meetings because of a respiratory issue.
“I’m not flaunting not wearing a mask for political purposes,” she said, adding that she is fully vaccinated and wears a mask during her job as a high school teacher. Under state law, masks are required in K-12 schools until June 15.
“[This] is between me and my doctor, not the public,” Stringham said. “I have a choice to make, and I choose to be able to breathe a little bit in these meetings.”
The same day Theodore made her statement last week on the mask mandate at county facilities, Utah reached its “endgame” thresholds set by the Legislature for case rates, intensive care unit occupancy and vaccinations. That meant all public health orders related to the pandemic lifted, but businesses can continue their own mask requirements.
Gov. Spencer Cox, who signed the endgame bill into law, nevertheless enacted his own mask extension for state facilities like liquor stores, driver license offices and on Capitol Hill, as reported by FOX 13. That order will remain in effect until at least May 31. Wilson’s face covering requirement has the same expiration date.
It’s unclear whether all members of the Salt Lake County Council — including the other three Republicans — are on board with overriding the mayor’s executive authority at county facilities such as recreation centers, where masks are required except when actively exercising.
“It’s a separation of powers,” said council Chair Steve DeBry, a Republican. “Right now, what’s been proposed crosses over that line, and it hasn’t been done before.”
DeBry added that the district attorney’s office and the council’s own legal counsel are examining whether Theodore’s proposal has legal standing.
“It kind of caught us all off guard,” DeBry said, “when it was read by council member Theodore a week ago.”
The chair said he would consider supporting a nonbinding resolution and that he understood the sentiment behind Theodore’s words and the county GOP’s statement.
“I’ve always said let’s follow the science,” he said. “If it says let’s open things up, things are looking good, I think we should.”
But DeBry said he had concerns about an ordinance that put “an actual law on the county books.”
“Will I sign it?” DeBry said. “No.”
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