Tooele County Council overturns school mask order issued by its health department

Health boss is “disappointed” with the vote but vows to continue efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign regarding masks at Franklin Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. The Tooele County Council has rejected a mask order for schools.

In a close vote this week, the Tooele County Council nixed a school mask mandate issued by its local health department.

The mask order had been in place for less than a week and would have triggered a 30-day face covering requirement when 2% of a K-12 school’s population tested positive for COVID-19, or 30 students tested positive in schools with less than 1,500 students. But after debating the issue and listening to public comment for about an hour Tuesday, the council voted 3-2 to overturn the Tooele County Health Department’s decision, as reported by FOX 13.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” health department Executive Director Jeff Coombs told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday, “but, as an agency, we’ll continue to work with our school district in our community to take whatever measures we can to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Coombs added that he provides daily updates with pandemic data to the council. Currently no school has met the thresholds that would have launched a mandate, but the health director noted that Tooele High School is close.

Tom Tripp was one of the council members in the minority who voted to sustain the mandate. “It was a decent idea to try and keep schools open,” he said.

Council member Kendall Thomas also voted to keep the mandate in place after hearing stories of burned-out medical workers in the county.

“When you look at the data on hospitalizations, we’re full house,” Thomas said. “The whole state and the nation are filling up. What are we going to do with people who have other medical needs?”

Keeping children in the classroom, instead of quarantining due to illness, was also best for learning and for the economy, Thomas added. “If kids are home, it puts a lot of extra stress on families.”

The remaining three council members — all of whom voted against the mask order — did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The health department previously had noted that kids are at risk of severe illness from coronavirus infections, and even if children don’t experience severe illness, they can suffer long-term health effects.

State records indicate 43% of Tooele County residents are vaccinated, and most grade schoolers are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

The County Council has authority to terminate the mandate, after lawmakers passed a bill during the past legislative session placing a check on the powers exercised by unelected public health officials. Under that law, schools cannot issue their own mask orders. Instead, mandates must come from local health departments, and county legislative bodies can overturn them.

The Salt Lake County Council overturned a school mask requirement issued by its health director last month. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, however, issued her own mandate for city schools, arguing recent state laws regulating orders related to the coronavirus pandemic did not include language that applied to city mayors. To date, Mendenhall’s order has not been formally challenged.

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.