The Salt Lake County Council voted on party lines Thursday to overturn a mask mandate for K-6 students issued by county health director Dr. Angela Dunn.
The six Republicans on the council, including Chair Steve DeBry, Aimee Winder Newton, Richard Snelgrove, Laurie Stringham, Dea Theodore and David Alvord, voted to repeal the mask order. Democrats Arlyn Bradshaw, Jim Bradley and Ann Granato voted to uphold the mandate.
“Although we have smart, incredible health officials, there are so many unknowns,” Winder Newton said. “... It’s difficult because none of us have a crystal ball to see how our decision today will impact the future.”
Democrats attempted to table the resolution to overturn the mandate, with Bradley arguing there was no rush to take immediate action.
“My point is, Salt Lake County is in a unique position to be a contributor to the body of knowledge of whether masks work or not,” Bradley said. “... There’s certainly a large population who believe they do.”
Republicans hold a veto-proof majority on the council, although it is unclear whether Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, has the authority to veto the vote at all, based on a bill passed earlier this year by the Utah Legislature. That bill was intended to put a check on the powers of unelected public health officials, allowing county legislative bodies to overturn any pandemic orders.
The council did not take public comment during its special meeting, and Dunn was not present.
A large anti-mask crowd filled the council chamber and overflow area, at times heckling Democrats who spoke in support of face coverings for children too young to be vaccinated.
After the council voted to overturn the mandate, a group sang the national anthem beneath a waving American flag adorned with the Three Percenters logo.
Three Percenters are a part of the militia movement and derive their name from the incorrect belief that only 3% of colonists fought against the British in the Revolutionary War, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The group’s logo — the Roman numeral for the number three — is popular with anti-government extremists, the ADL said.
The crowd chanted “USA! USA!”
Stringham, who works as a teacher, said she struggled with her decision up until Wednesday night, weighing the public health benefits of masks with the toll the pandemic was taking on kids’ mental health.
“This is an incredibly difficult time for our county, for our nation,” Stringham said. “One of the things we’re not teaching kids at this time is civility. And it’s something we need to be showing them on a daily basis.”
Dunn issued a statement after the council’s vote.
“I thank the Salt Lake County Council for their quick decision so Salt Lake County parents, students, and educators have clarity,” Dunn wrote. “Though this is not the result I had hoped for, I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively with the council and other stakeholders to address the COVID pandemic.”
The health director also noted that the delta variant is a “serious threat” to children and that current high rates of infection “require strong intervention.”
An hour before the council convened, a leading Utah pediatrician did not hold back on his support for Dunn’s order.
”It would be a terrible mistake” to overturn the order, Dr. Andrew Pavia, director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, said in a virtual news conference before the council’s meeting. “If people overturn those recommendations, and kids get very sick and kids die, they should realize that it’s their responsibility.”
While it was once thought that children were less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults, Pavia said, “the delta variant has been an enormous game-changer for children.”
”The delta variant is twice as contagious than previous versions of COVID-19,” Pavia noted, and 2½ times as many children have been diagnosed with COVID this year as last year.
One reason the number of children getting COVID-19 was so low last year, Pavia said, was that kids were masked.
”What we do know is masks work best if everybody wears them,” Pavia said. “In-person school can be safe, but it can’t be safe if we don’t have universal masking.”
Mayor Jenny Wilson reacts
Moments after the council concluded its meeting, Wilson spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune, criticizing the members’ effective override of the county’s experts and professionals.
“If a building collapsed and our public works director said, ‘The crane should go here to save lives and the search team should go there,’” Wilson said, “the council, I would hope, would not breeze in and decide they know better. That’s exactly what they did today.”
Wilson also railed against state legislators for passing SB195 this year, saying the bill curtailed her ability to respond to an emergency.
“My wings were clipped by the Legislature, which is what led to today,” Wilson said. “It created pretty much a mess out of the process.”
The mayor praised Dunn as the health department explores how to respond to the pandemic moving forward, which could mean reintroducing responses like quarantine and isolation.
“What we saw today in our chamber was a group of people more interested in winning than protecting their children’s health,” the mayor said.
“The council members made comments today about minimal risk, and we just don’t know with the delta variant,” Wilson continued. “We haven’t put 40 kids in a classroom together while the delta variant has been raging.”
The mayor urged parents worried about sending their children to school this year to have their kids wear face coverings and, if they are old enough, get vaccinated.
Asked about whether she has concerns for the safety of her own two kids, ages 16 and 19, Wilson teared up.
“Frankly, thank goodness my kids are vaccinated,” the mayor said, “because I worry about every friend, every employee here who has young kids and are sending them to school.”
— Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this article.