Cox to pitch plans to address COVID-19 surge, but will public officials listen?

Senate President Stuart Adams says the current process is working even as positive cases among kids continues to rise

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "The mask thing is so, so, so blown out of proportion," said Gov. Spencer J. Cox, during his administration's update on the ongoing pandemic, Aug. 31, 2021 at the Capitol. "Masks are not as effective as most of the pro-mask crowd is arguing. They are a tool. So we know it does something."

Gov. Spencer Cox plans to make his pitch to require mask-wearing or other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to Utah legislators later this week.

Whether they get onboard is an iffy proposition at best.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that Cox proposed an executive order to allow schools to institute a mask mandate during a closed-door meeting with school superintendents, health department officials and legislative leaders.

Cox’s offer was rebuffed.

The Republican governor said Tuesday he’s been working with legislative leadership to minimize the spread of the coronavirus now that schools are heading back into session.

On Wednesday, he’ll appeal directly to lawmakers as he meets with the majority and minority House and Senate caucuses.

“The laws we have in place now require collaboration with the Legislature,” Cox said. “They have the ability to overturn anything we do.”

Process is ‘working right now’

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, says he’s happy to listen to the governor and his ideas for reducing the spread of COVID-19. But he’s unsure there’s anything Cox or the Legislature should do right now.

“We already have a process in place that’s working right now,” Adams said.

COVID cases are on the rise in Utah, a surge fueled by the delta variant. The state’s intensive care unit beds are full. Officials report more and more schoolchildren being infected, a data point that does not support Adams’ assertion.

Earlier this year, lawmakers took the power to implement a mask mandate away from local school boards. Instead, that authority now lies with local health departments, with county councils or commissioners having the ability to override that order.

The GOP-led Salt Lake County Council nixed a school mask order in August on a 6-3 party-line vote. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall mandated masks at schools in Utah’s capital and that order stands, through one week of school.

Cox can use an executive order or his emergency powers to take unilateral action, but there are limits on how far he can go.

A bill passed earlier this year puts a 30-day limit on an emergency order from the governor, and it can be extended only if the Legislature agrees. If an order takes effect, legislative leaders will convene a committee to discuss whether the order should be extended and to gather input from the public.

“The governor has talked about an emergency order,” Adams said. “If he does that, then we would start that process.”

State lawmakers can terminate any emergency order with a majority vote but cannot do so without calling themselves into a special session, and Adams acknowledges that would take some time to put into motion.

Utah is under federal investigation for its ban on schools enacting mask mandates — which the U.S. the Department of Education announced it believes is discriminatory toward students with disabilities or health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

The department announced the civil rights investigation here and in four other states with similar prohibitions Monday. Those are Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee, all of which are also led by Republican governors.

‘It seems to be working’

Cox’s frustration with the situation is apparent as his administration flails about, attempting to find a way to deal with the increasing number of cases in the state.

“There is no way the Legislature is going to approve a mask mandate for the state. We were assured that if things changed, they would be willing to reconsider and make decisions based on those changes,” Cox said. “They’ve rejected some of our ideas, so I’m anxious to hear some of theirs.”

Adams said he expects his colleagues to listen, but he doesn’t see much momentum for lawmakers to make any drastic changes to the status quo. He points to the mask mandate for K-6 students in Grand County and a mask requirement in Summit County that will take effect if the number of coronavirus cases in schools meet a certain threshold.

“We put a process in place last year, and it seems to be working,” Adams said. “Why on earth would we as a Legislature take over this right now?”

House leaders declined to comment Tuesday but plan to issue a statement after meeting Wednesday with Cox.