As Utah experiences a crush of new COVID-19 infections, Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn has issued a public health order requiring masks.
The order was to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. It is designed to last for 30 days, expiring at 5 p.m. on Feb. 7.
It requires everyone in the county to wear well-fitting masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and also applies to those queuing outdoors. Children under 2, those with certain medical conditions and those actively eating or drinking at a restaurant are exempt.
In a news release announcing the mandate Friday, Dunn said the move was in response to the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
“We desperately need to use every tool available to ensure our hospitals can continue providing excellent health care through this surge,” Dunn said. “We also need to ensure that our essential services have the staff necessary to operate — from law enforcement, to plow drivers, to schoolteachers. It is my obligation as health officer to take the action I believe has the best chance to prevent unnecessary suffering throughout our community.”
The full mandate posted online just before 5:30 p.m. Friday.
Dunn can issue a mandate as health director, but the County Council can overturn it.
She told The Salt Lake Tribune she does not expect a veto from the Republican-led council and that the mandate has support “from both sides” after recent discussions with council members about mitigation strategies.
Council members voted on party lines in August to repeal Dunn’s previous mask mandate for schools, using its veto-proof GOP majority.
“We are pushing vaccinations and boosters,” council Chair Laurie Stringham said Thursday night when asked for comment on a possible mandate.
As of Friday evening, Stringham said the council is still discussing the order.
“Considering the spread and urgency of the omicron variant of COVID-19,” Stringham said in a statement, “this issue will be a top priority for the Salt Lake County Council.”
At least one Republican council member said she supports Dunn’s order, however.
“I told her I would be willing to support a mask mandate for 30 days,” Winder Newton said in a video posted to Twitter.
But Republican council member Dea Theodore said in a Facebook post that she does not back the mandate.
“Cloth masks do not work!” Theodore wrote. “... If you choose to wear a mask, then the N95 or KN95 is your best protection. Please stay healthy and stay home if you are sick.”
A fellow Republican council member, Steve DeBry, also posted on Facebook that he would vote to overturn any mask mandate.
“Regardless of a mandate, those who want to wear masks will and those who don’t will not comply,” DeBry wrote. “I still believe everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated should get their shots and if you are due for a booster, to get the booster. It’s easy to find locations throughout Salt Lake County to take care of yourself and your loved ones.”
If all three Democratic council members support the mask mandate — as they voted last summer — and one Republican comes on board, the council likely wouldn’t have enough votes to override a mayoral veto of any repeal effort.
Dunn hopes the mask rule will not need to be extended beyond its allotted 30 days and encouraged individuals to get vaccinated to prevent another spike.
She also urged residents to acquire higher-quality masks, since KN95 masks are more successful in preventing transmission of the variant than cloth ones. She said these masks will be available Saturday at libraries, senior centers and other community buildings.
In a letter issued earlier Friday to the County Council, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urged a mask requirement and expressed alarm over transmission rates in the county. She noted that the seven-day average of positive cases on Dec. 26 was 450, a number that rocketed to 1,450 this week. And the Utah Department of Health reported a record number of statewide infections Friday, topping 9,000.
“Cases are exploding in Utah,” Mendenhall wrote, “and health experts warn that we have yet to see the peak from the omicron surge.”
The mayor noted that 65% of eligible county residents have not received a booster vaccine, leading to concerns that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed with infected patients. Mendenhall added that there soon may not be enough healthy doctors and nurses to handle the surge in cases.
“I’m also closely watching the trend across the nation of city mayors being forced to declare states of emergency due to staffing shortages in their public safety departments,” the mayor wrote. “Community spread impacts every function of our government, and, as public officials, we have a responsibility to keep our employees safe.”
Meanwhile, mere days after becoming chair of the County Council, Stringham confirmed she has tested positive for COVID-19.
“Clearly omicron is a very powerful variant,” Stringham said, “and it’s breaking through the vaccinations.”
The Republican council member received her positive test Wednesday night, she said, adding that she’s fully vaccinated and the infection “hit pretty fast and furious” but her symptoms are improving.
“I am hoping it passes quickly,” Stringham wrote via text message Thursday evening. “The County Health Department is recording alarming infection rates right now. It is important for people to talk to their doctors and take what precautions are best for them and their families.”
Stringham was selected as chair during the council’s regular Tuesday meeting. She was also one of two members who did not wear a mask, even as Dunn presented information about mounting COVID-19 infections in the county.
That same day, county officials issued a public health advisory urging the public to take more serious pandemic precautions, including wearing masks indoors and outside, even for people who are vaccinated. Stringham urged the public to take the advisory seriously.
State lawmakers limited the governor’s emergency powers and empowered county councils or commissions to overturn mask mandates through legislation last year. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, issued a brief joint release late Friday in response to Salt Lake and Summit counties’ recent face covering requirements.
“While we believe government mandates should be a last resort, we will review the recently issued orders,” the release said. “As other areas have experienced, we hope Utah’s current COVID-19 surge is temporary. We continue to encourage Utahns to get vaccinated and take precautions to keep themselves and those around them healthy without overwhelming our hospitals.”
The Salt Lake County Health Department’s news release notes that the purpose of the health order is to protect the public and keep critical industries staffed, “not to hold someone criminally liable.” It urged business owners and other operators of public spaces to help enforce the mandate.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, also signed off on Dunn’s mandate. In a statement Friday, the mayor noted COVID-19 infections are at an all-time high in the county. She called on elected officials, community leaders and businesses to encourage residents to get vaccinated, boosted and don masks.
“While it is encouraging that — thanks to vaccination — we don’t expect the general population to see as severe an illness as before,” Wilson wrote, “the rapid increase in total cases ... is putting tremendous strain on our hospital system.”
On Thursday, Summit County announced its own mask mandate for all public buildings until Feb. 21.
In her letter to the Salt Lake County Council, Mendenhall said a countywide mandate would offer more protection than a requirement in Salt Lake City alone.
“Please do all in your power to protect our residents, our health care and front-line workers, and keep schools and businesses open by temporarily requiring masks in public spaces countywide,” the mayor wrote. “We all want a return to normal, and keeping as many people out of the hospital as possible is a very simple way to help us get there.”
— Tribune reporter Jordan Miller contributed to this story.