Cox mulling executive order to circumvent state law banning mask ban at schools

Positive COVID-19 cases among the state’s K-12 students could more than triple from the same time in 2020, per PowerPoint reviewed during meeting

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Utah Department of Health deputy director Dr. Michelle Hofmann, Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. During a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, Cox offered to use his executive authority to allow schools to implement mask mandates.

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Gov. Spencer Cox said he would issue an executive order allowing local education officials to require masks for students and staff in schools, but school officials told him the issue is now politicized and would be counterproductive, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.

The offer came during a virtual meeting with local health officials, superintendents from around the state, legislative leaders, and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson on Tuesday.

Several people involved in the meeting said Cox’s offer was welcomed by health officials, but the superintendents pushed back because of the heated rhetoric and backlash such a move would likely bring.

Cox’s office did not deny the governor’s offer of an executive order on masks.

“Over the past few weeks, the governor has engaged legislative leadership and school officials in exploring ways to keep students safe and keep them in school. Those discussions are ongoing,” spokesperson Jennifer Napier-Pearce said in a text message.

Earlier this year, Cox triumphantly declared there would be no mask-wearing when schools re-opened.

“There will be no masks in fall,” Cox said during a virtual town hall meeting in May. “We will be done with that.”

But COVID-19 cases in Utah are on the rise, fueled primarily by the delta variant.

Utah lawmakers took mask mandates away from local school authorities during a special session in May. Instead, any mask mandate for schools must come from local health authorities, but an order can be reversed by a county council or commission.

Earlier this month, Salt Lake County Health Director Angela Dunn ordered masks for schools in the county, but the directive was overturned by the GOP-controlled county council on a 6-3 vote.

Cox’s executive order would give schools a way to circumvent that law.

More than 1,100 Utahns tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, and 22% of those were school-age children.

Could positive cases triple?

Slides from a PowerPoint presentation during the meeting reviewed by The Tribune indicated that without a mask mandate, positive COVID-19 cases among the state’s K-12 students could more than triple from the same time in 2020. Hospitalizations would also jump dramatically, as would ICU admissions.

Under a 30-day mask mandate, positive cases still would increase, but not as drastically.

Other measures to reduce COVID cases in schools, including the ability for kids to remain in class if they test negative, are already in place.

If an executive order on masks came from Cox, it would likely set up a standoff with the lawmakers. Another law passed this year gives the Legislature the power to terminate a stay-at-home order or mask mandate.

The superintendents rejected Cox’s offer, thinking school administrators were not qualified to make medical decisions. One person in the meeting said school officials favored the process put in place by lawmakers, which gives decision-making power on mandatory masking to health officials with oversight from the county government.

Resistance to Cox’s idea also was rooted in the potential blowback from the public to a mandatory masking order in schools. Another participant told The Tribune the issue is so polarizing, they would be fearful for the public’s safety if mask-wearing was on the agenda of a local school board meeting.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who took part in the meeting, says he saw the effort by Cox as a way to gather information from stakeholders and to try and find a way forward.

“I think it speaks well of the governor that he’s willing to listen to the concerned parties. We’re all concerned about this,” Adams said.

The Tribune requested a recording of the virtual meeting but was told by Cox’s office one likely did not exist.

Last week Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall used her emergency powers to mandate masks for schools within the city boundaries. Lawmakers insist she does not have the authority to require masks, citing the law delegating that decision to local health departments.