Salt Lake City Council members back Mayor Mendenhall on masks, but have a big fear: the Legislature

“Vast majority” of city residents approve of face coverings in schools, they say, even as lawmakers hint of payback.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Mendenhall chats with Salt Lake City Council member Amy Fowler in this file photo. Most council members, including Fowler, support the mayor's mask mandate for K-12 schools in the city.

Most members of the Salt Lake City Council say they support Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s mask requirement for K-12 schools and that the overwhelming majority of their constituents support it, too.

The mayor announced her intention to issue a mandate at the council’s work session early last week. Both the mayor and council indicated they wanted the Salt Lake City School District’s backing as well before any order was finalized. When that public support failed to materialize, Mendenhall issued the mandate anyway, mere days before school is set to start on Tuesday.

(A spokesperson for the mayor noted that a “majority” of school board members have privately said they back the mandate.)

“I believe that my position as a city councilwoman is to make sure our residents feel safe within their city,” said Chair Amy Fowler, who represents the District 7 Sugar House area. “This [mandate] is one of those things that I believe we need to do to ensure the safety of our children.”

Council member Dan Dugan, who represents east-bench neighborhoods in District 6, said he was troubled by the growing rate of infections in Salt Lake County’s children, which recently surpassed the number of daily infections in older adults ages 50 to 79.

Schools across the country have quarantined thousands of students or moved to online learning mere days after they opened this year.

“Do we prepare for the storm after it hits, or before it hits?” Dugan said. “In this case, there’s data out there … Let’s put masks on [kids] to help us out, because we know it worked last year.”

Representing District 3, including the Avenues and Capitol Hill, Councilman Chris Wharton said public health data collected during the coronavirus pandemic shows that masks work.

“With COVID numbers spiking again,” Wharton wrote via text message, “we need to put the health and safety of kids, teachers, and staff first.”

The delta variant, which is more contagious, has filled Utah hospital beds and intensive care units, even as the majority of state residents are eligible to receive vaccines for the virus. Less than 60% of Utahns eligible for the shots are fully inoculated.

“Wearing masks has proven to work,” District 4 council member Ana Valdemoros, representing downtown and central city areas, said via text message,” and if such a small act as wearing a mask temporarily can help prevent the additional spread of the virus and its variant, why not do it?”

Valdemoros added that she wanted to see a timeline and milestones to “see the trajectory of the virus spread.”

Council member Darin Mano, who represents District 5 neighborhoods like Ballpark and East Liberty Park, said Mendenhall’s order is particularly important for grade schoolers, who are too young to get vaccinated.

“I myself have children in elementary school, not in the Salt Lake City District, unfortunately,” Mano said. “It’s a confusing and scary time for everybody. It’s unfortunate that the schoolchildren are caught in the middle of a political debate that, to me, should be based on science.”

Legislature’s ‘frustrating’ law

This spring, Utah lawmakers passed an “endgame” bill that lifted all public health orders related to the pandemic. The Republican-dominated Legislature banned school districts from enacting their own mask mandates as well, instead requiring such orders to come as a recommendation from local health departments, with the local county governing body having the authority to repeal them.

Salt Lake County’s health director, Dr. Angela Dunn, issued a face covering order for schools earlier this month. It was overturned by Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council, who hold a veto-proof supermajority.

“I would love to see this in the hands of the health department, which did issue a mask mandate,” said Salt Lake City Council member Dennis Faris, who represents west-side neighborhoods like Poplar Grove and Glendale in District 2. “That’s specifically who we task to be the experts on, and help us manage, health care issues. [That authority] was taken away from them.”

Faris called the Legislature’s “endgame” law “frustrating” and disappointing, adding that most Salt Lake City residents he has heard from also want a mask requirement for schools.

“The vast majority, and I do mean vast, are in favor of the mandate,” he said. “They just want to protect people — certainly themselves, their own children, and to protect others as well.”

One council member, James Rogers, opposes the mayor’s order. He represents District 1, including Rose Park and the northwest section of Utah’s capital.

“I’m about 2.5 more times worried about [kids] drowning,” the councilman said via text message, attaching a graph from The New York Times showing drowning the top cause of annual deaths among children 1 to 4 years old, with COVID-19 deaths far behind other causes like vehicle accidents, homicide, cancer, suicide and flu in kids 14 and younger.

Fears over legislative payback

Mendenhall previously said she was “fully confident” her school mask order did not violate state law. Still, all the council members interviewed for this story said they feared Utah lawmakers would retaliate.

“They always do,” Rogers said.

The councilman speculated retribution could extend beyond the pandemic response, affecting issues like the inland port or homelessness.

“Who knows what they are thinking,” Rogers said.

Over the weekend, some legislators took to social media to criticize Salt Lake City’s mandate.

“It’s unfortunate when the legislature is compelled to put restrictions on cities because of one Mayor or City Council (usually #SLC) overstepping,” tweeted Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper. “Local governments statewide have long been paying for the sins of Mayors in SLC.”

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, posted on Facebook that the emergency authority granted to mayors is limited to disasters or threats to public safety.

“There is no public safety threat, no disaster, and no threat of a disaster to justify [Mendenhall’s] order mandating masks in schools,” Schultz wrote. “... This troubling pattern of issuing orders and claiming authority granted through emergency powers MUST be stopped.”

The lawmaker said emergency legislation is coming, and it could include “ramifications.”

“I have no clue as to the limits of their creativity,” Faris said of what retribution lawmakers may be planning. “They could do a whole lot of things I haven’t even considered.”

Fowler, the council chair, said the little pushback she has heard over the mandate has “mostly come from state lawmakers, less from residents of Salt Lake City.”

Wharton encouraged state and locally elected officials to follow the public health science instead of focusing on “political power.”

“That is my biggest concern,” Wharton said.

Dugan said regardless of what state lawmakers plan, he remained focused on supporting the city’s parents, teaches and students.

“Sometimes we do worry about what the Legislature does to Salt Lake City,” Dugan said, “but in this case, [the mandate] is the right thing to do, bottom line.”