When Erin Mendenhall ran for mayor in 2019, her campaign was largely defined by a pledge to clean up Salt Lake City’s polluted air.
Now, nearing the halfway point of her first term, a different public health issue has consumed much of her time in office: responding to the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Her first budget had sizable cuts as the city braced for economic repercussions from forced closures and scaled-back business. She then rallied to get federal aid to low-income families and those facing eviction. Spring brought vaccines, and the mayor offered a hopeful message to residents. Then summer saw lackluster inoculation rates and a new surge of infections, prompting the mayor to quickly issue a school mask mandate ahead of the fall.
As the mayor faces blowback from state lawmakers over the move, and a lack of action from other state leaders who either caved to public pressure or had their hands tied by the Legislature, she spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune about her pandemic response, concerns and priorities.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you took office last year, you had an ambitious vision. Have you had to shelve any of your goals with the pandemic taking center stage?
That was the purpose of doing our Annual Progress Report Card at the end of 2020, and we’ll do that analysis again at the end of 2021. I felt like that kind of transparency was appropriate and needed, given the incredible amount of work that wasn’t anticipated in January of 2020 when I took office, but ended up falling on our community with a pandemic and a number of other crises that took place.
An example is a policy idea I carried through my campaign — the “Tickets for Transit” idea. That would be the first foray of private investment into the growth of our public transit system, by connecting every ticket to a Salt Lake City event with a free transit pass to get to and from that event, no matter where you live in the system. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints raised their hand as the first [partner], and their April 2020 General Conference was going to be the first Tickets for Transit endeavor. And then, of course, that conference didn’t happen in person and hasn’t happened since.
We’re dusting Tickets for Transit off now and reevaluating how, given the volatility and the continuation of the pandemic, it could still be applied. But it’s one of the policies that had to take the back burner.
Are there any priorities you had that are now feeling less and less attainable as the pandemic drags on?
There aren’t any that have fallen off the table for us. In contrast, I think that some of the needs in the community — homelessness is a good example — have both been exacerbated by the pandemic and also found federal funding that wasn’t there. The city just received $87 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars, and, as a city, we’ve invested more than $16 million in rental assistance over the over the course of the pandemic. Both represent increases in need and increases in financial capacity for us to make lasting investments in support.
Do you believe the end of the pandemic is still in sight, or do you think this is going to be something you’re grappling with until the end of your term?
Right now, the issues around the pandemic, obviously, are continuing and growing, unfortunately. But the the impact that has on our community and our economy and even the future of built infrastructure in our city will be long-lasting.
How do you explain the mask debate to your own kids? I wonder what it’s like for them to see adults fighting over this so passionately and publicly.
My background is in science and that probably has an effect in how I’ve communicated with my children about the pandemic throughout. We have nurses in our family who, over the decades of their careers, wore masks to keep their patients and themselves safe. So it’s not a new idea that we would wear masks to keep each other and other people safe. It has not been a political issue in my discussions with my children. They’ve been around local politics long enough that I think they know that there is a person for every opinion out there and that doesn’t dissuade our family from wearing masks.
In your commentary published last month in The Tribune, you explained the legal rationale and necessity of your citywide mask mandate for schools, even though lawmakers had passed a bill this year leaving that decision up to county officials (the Salt Lake County Council opted to repeal a countywide school mandate issued by its own health department). You also noted that your mask mandate wasn’t meant to pick a fight with the Legislature. Do you fear retaliation anyway?
The legal grounds that the Legislature created, which doesn’t [include] any limitations on mayors across the state, may be frustrating for some legislators, but that is the law that they created. I am keenly watching the data that our county dashboard shares on COVID cases in the different school districts of the county. And I hope that lawmakers also will be looking at the public health [efforts] keeping our kids healthier and in school more compared to districts that haven’t put a mask mandate in place.
It sounds like you feel confident the data will show that the mandate was effective, and that might temper lawmakers’ reactions?
That’s what we’re seeing in these first few weeks of data that are up. Whether or not the Legislature will choose to focus on public health and the local data that supports masks in schools is not in my hands.
Do you feel you have an ally in Gov. Spencer Cox, who explored issuing his own executive order requiring masks, or would you like him to do more?
I feel that I have a good relationship with Governor Cox, as well as other state leadership, in that we communicate. We can agree to disagree, and while we make different decisions in our respective jurisdictions of authority, we can understand each other’s decision-making process.
I wonder, though, if it’s not frustrating for you to be one of the few elected leaders in Utah taking bold action to slow the pandemic?
I don’t think that Salt Lake City finds itself politically in a different place than we were before the pandemic began. We’re a Democratic-majority city. We have long been the progressive lead in the state. You’ve continued to see our city lead by science and working with the data rather than letting political interests take the lead.
Do you have some highlights to share of where you might invest the American Rescue Plan Act dollars?
No, I can’t just yet, but I’m excited to very soon.
It’s a big chunk of money. Can you explain why it’s taking so long to work through the red tape and decide where to spend it?
There is more guidance yet to come from the U.S. Treasury. The details have trickled in since late spring, early summer. Also, any city or county or state could look at the ARPA funding they have and decide to do a thousand disparate, scattered projects that have been piling up. I don’t want us to do that. We have other streams of funding, like the capital improvement program, to do that scattered approach. Instead, we’ve been thinking about this investment on a scale that we haven’t had an opportunity to envision in generations. In ways, I liken it to the Civilian Conservation Corps investment our federal government made coming out of the Great Depression back in the 1930s. We want to make sure we do the most and best we can to benefit our residents.
As COVID-19 cases mount and we head into fall and winter, what keeps you up at night?
Wondering how the residents of Utah who haven’t been vaccinated, but are still potentially willing, may be compelled.