Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urges City Council to extend school mask mandate

Vote is planned for Tuesday as Dr. Angela Dunn, who leads Salt Lake County’s Health Department, points to data showing the face coverings are working.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall arrives at a news conference about masks in schools in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

The emergency mask order for Salt Lake City schools is set to expire in a week, and Mayor Erin Mendenhall is asking the City Council to extend it.

The mayor issued the mask requirement after Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council overturned a countywide mask order issued by the local health department last month. The Utah Legislature banned school districts from enacting their own pandemic-related public health orders earlier this year, giving that power to counties under an “endgame” law.

Mendenhall previously argued that legislation did not apply to city mayors’ ability to declare their own emergency health orders and, days before the first day of school, she enacted a mask mandate for K-12 students and faculty.

With a 30-day deadline on the declaration approaching, Mendenhall noted at a news conference Monday that the state’s rate of infections are not improving.

“COVID continues to unnecessarily claim lives across the state of Utah with our unvaccinated community,” Mendenhall said, “and with every new day of data, things actually appear to be getting worse.”

Salt Lake County schools report 1,458 COVID-19 cases this school year so far, compared to 224 cases at the same point last year, according to health department data.

In a news release, Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the capital city’s schools currently have the lowest rate of transmission among the county’s five school districts. Salt Lake City schools also have the highest rate of vaccinations.

“Salt Lake City School District and its community,” Dunn said, “are doing everything they can to help keep children learning safely in person.”

The mayor added that masks are especially important for grade schoolers, who are not eligible for vaccination.

“Our kids need to be wearing masks in schools and out in public,” Mendenhall said. “We’re not out of the woods. We can’t afford to be taking a step backwards at a time like this.”

Although some lawmakers publicly fumed about Mendenhall’s mask order and said it defied state law, there have been no formal attempts to block it. The mayor said compliance with the mandate is nearly 100%, even though school administrators say they have virtually no way to enforce it.

Under Utah law, local executive emergency declarations remain in effect for 30 days, but they can be renewed by the local governing council. A resolution to extend Mendenhall’s school mask order is the only agenda item for the Salt Lake City Council’s formal meeting Tuesday evening.

Asked for comment, council Chair Amy Fowler said the resolution is likely to pass but declined to provide a statement until after the vote. All but one City Council member previously expressed strong support for Mendenhall’s mask mandate — despite concerns of retaliation from the Republican-dominated Legislature.