Mask mandate extended in Salt Lake City schools by City Council

Face covering requirements will remain for K-12 students through at least the next 30 days as council members seek advice from the county health director.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chance Carey and Ashlynn Panek enjoy a slow dance with matching masks, at the Cyprus High school Prom, at the Viridian Event Center, on Saturday, April 24, 2021.

In a 6-1 vote Tuesday night, the Salt Lake City Council opted to extend Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s mask mandate for K-12 schools.

Only council member James Rogers expressed opposition to a mask order, saying such requirements should be declared by the school board.

“Hey, if your kids want to wear masks all day, they should do it,” Rogers added. “… I can’t wear a mask for eight hours. It’s impossible for me to do that.”

Council Chair Amy Fowler said that she had received an overwhelming amount of support for the mask mandate from residents in her district. Councilman Darin Mano said he had similar feedback, and that of the people who had reached out to complain about masks, he could only confirm one lived in Salt Lake City. Mano also agreed with Rogers that the decision should be up to school districts but noted state lawmakers previously tied their hands with the “endgame” legislation earlier this year.

“The truth is,” Mano said, “that authority was taken away from the school board.”

The mask resolution was the only action item during the council’s limited formal meeting, and members did not take public comment.

Mendenhall had issued the face covering requirement days before the first day of school began last month, and it was due to expire after 30 days. Under Utah law, local executive emergency declarations must be renewed by the governing council. Mendenhall had urged council members Monday to take action.

The council voted to extend the mandate for another 30 days and will consult Dr. Angela Dunn, the Salt Lake County Health Department’s executive director, on how to proceed.

Ahead of the council’s vote, the mayor shared pandemic data at a work session Tuesday evening. Salt Lake City is the only school district with a mask mandate in the county, and its case rate is lower than neighboring districts.

The number of infections across the county is likely undercounted, however, because some parents refuse to talk to health officials when their children test positive.

“The data from the Salt Lake City School District is showing really clearly the benefits of wearing masks, and it’s what doctors and our health officials have been saying all along,” Mendenhall told the council. “Until we get vaccinated, we need to be wearing masks.”

Currently, elementary-age children are not eligible for vaccines. Mendenhall added that compliance with mask-wearing at city schools is at 99.8%, according to administrators.

“They’re working with the individuals and their families who are not complying,” Mendenhall said.

The City Council has resumed virtual meetings as COVID-19 cases surge once again due to the delta variant and low rates of Utahns getting the jab. Statewide, 50.8% of Utahns are fully vaccinated. In Salt Lake City, the rate is 62.3%, the mayor reported.

All the City Council members except Rogers previously expressed strong support for Mendenhall’s mask mandate in schools — despite concerns of retaliation from the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Last month, the Salt Lake County Council overturned a countywide elementary school mask requirement issued by its health department.

Mendenhall argued the endgame legislation does not apply to city mayors’ ability to declare their own local emergency health orders when she issued her citywide mask mandate days later. It has not been formally challenged or blocked, even though some lawmakers have publicly spoken out against the mayor’s action and implied there will be repercussions.