Salt Lake County approves exemptions to vaccine mandate, but there is no vaccine mandate

On 7-2 vote, the GOP-led County Council approves a new ordinance that Mayor Jenny Wilson calls “unnecessary.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is prepared during a free COVID-19 clinic in Salt Lake City in August. The Salt Lake County Council approved exemptions from a vaccine mandate Tuesday, even though there is no such mandate in place.

Salt Lake County government employees are not required to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Democratic Mayor Jenny Wilson said she will not seek a mandate — now or in the future.

And yet, the Republican-led County Council approved exemptions Tuesday for religious and medical reasons if a mandate were to be put in place. The vote was 7-2, with Democrat Ann Granato voting with the six Republicans.

For GOP council members Laurie Stringham and Dea Theodore, this ordinance is necessary to remove confusion.

“I chose to get the COVID vaccination,” Stringham said, “but I also want to make sure that we are looking at people’s rights and abilities to be able to protect their health with their doctor and be able to make that determination themselves.”

Theodore said the ordinance doesn’t go as far as she would like but called it a good step.

“I know there’s a lot of confusion and a lot of contention in our country right now over vaccine mandates,” she said. “And I’m hoping that this policy will just add some comfort to the minds of those who might be in fear of some kind of mandate.”

Democratic council member Jim Bradley called the new ordinance “premature.”

”Any discussion regarding exemptions from a mandate,” he said, “should probably be dealt with when we have an ordinance saying we have to have a mandate.”

This ordinance involves only vaccines for COVID-19 and it applies only to a mandate for county employees. The ordinance lasts until December 2024. Employees would need a doctor’s note to get a medical exemption, and they would have to produce a written statement affirming their beliefs to get a religious exemption.

Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has barred its bishops and other lay leaders from signing any religious waiver helping their members dodge a vaccine mandate.

The faith’s top leaders, including church President Russell M. Nelson, a former heart surgeon, have supported the inoculations all along. They have had them. And they have repeatedly encouraged Latter-day Saints to do so as well, emphasizing that the shots “have proven to be both safe and effective.”

Any Salt Lake County exemptions would have no bearing on a federal mandate, like the one President Joe Biden is seeking for employers of more than 100 people. Under that plan, not yet approved, workers would need to get vaccinated or tested weekly.

Wilson grew frustrated during a work session Tuesday, repeatedly calling the proposal “unnecessary” and said it was “a waste of taxpayer dollars” to even have the discussion.

“This seems,” the mayor said, “to be more about making a point — unnecessarily — with an ordinance for something that has been ruled out.”

She also said it undercuts the county’s message that the vaccines are safe.

Wilson said she would not seek a mandate. And if circumstances changed so much that she considered a mandate, she would put in religious and medical exemptions then.

Republican council member Aimee Winder Newton said she appreciated the mayor’s “passion.”

“If this is along the lines of what you would suggest anyway and you’re not planning to do a mandate, I don’t see any harm in moving this forward,” Winder Newton said. “I don’t think anybody’s doing anything nefarious here.”

The council previously approved Wilson’s plan to give up to $500 to county workers who do get the COVID-19 vaccine.