Salt Lake County to stick with mask mandate, but plenty will be protesting

Council doesn’t have the votes to overturn it. Those who buck the order will face “education first, warning second, notice of violation third.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek Community Library at 2266 E. Evergreen Ave. offers patrons N95 masks on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, after the Salt Lake County Health Department ordered a 30-day mask mandate.

Salt Lake County Council members don’t have enough votes to repeal a 30-day mask order issued by Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn and Mayor Jenny Wilson, but they’re bracing for a throng of anti-mask protesters Tuesday.

Council chair Laurie Stringham, along with her fellow Republican council member Aimee Winder Newton, have both said they will support the mask mandate, which took effect Saturday and is set to expire at 5 p.m. on Feb. 7.

The council’s three Democrats also back the mask requirement, which marks a majority. While there aren’t enough votes to place the mandate on the agenda for a vote and discussion, the council is clearing much of its schedule Tuesday to allow room for an expected deluge of public comments.

Residents can participate online or in person. The council’s formal meeting begins at 4 p.m. at the County Government Center, 2001 S. State St., and the comment period is shortly after the call to order.

“We know we’re going to have public outcry,” Stringham said Monday, adding that she has received phone calls about the mandate, including threats, “from about 5 or 6 in the morning until 2 at night” along with hundreds of emails.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laurie Stringham at a Salt Lake County Council meeting in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

“We’re getting [them] from all over the state,” Stringham said. “I’m surprised at how many people in other counties are getting involved in this.”

Someone sent out an anonymous mass text to county residents urging them to pressure Winder Newton and Stringham into changing their minds. The council, with a 6-3 GOP majority, previously overturned a mask mandate on party lines that Dunn issued for schools in August.

Despite a vocal cadre of anti-mask organizers online, the Salt Lake County Health Department reported “no word of any problems” with the mask requirement over the weekend, according to spokesperson Nicholas Rupp.

“Enforcement is focused on businesses following the order, as many do [with] other health regulations,” Rupp said, “and [is] the same as with 2020′s mask order: education first, warning second, notice of violation third.”

Notices of violation can lead to civil or criminal penalties, Rupp said, although the county has not had to take such steps with COVID-19 orders in the past.

Stringham is currently isolating due to a positive case and ongoing COVID-19 symptoms but said, after speaking with contacts, that the vast majority of county residents appear to be complying with the mandate.

For instance, before the mask rule, said Mac Tapia, owner of Herriman’s La Garnacha restaurant, about 10% of his customers wore face coverings. Over the weekend, that number jumped to 90%.

Those who don’t don them aren’t being asked to comply. “We created an environment in which people won’t feel judged,” Tapia said, “whether they wear masks or not.”

Kestrel Liedtke, owner of Tin Angel, has a different circumstance. Her restaurant operates inside downtown Salt Lake City’s county-operated Eccles Theater, which had already been enforcing a mask rule. 

“I have not had any pushback at all. I haven’t had a single person complain about that policy,” she said. “So I feel really good. I feel like things like a mask mandate are what can keep us all in business, even through a pandemic.”

Stringham lamented, though, how polarizing public health measures have become since the coronavirus struck.

“I don’t know what it is about the pandemic, but Utah’s always been known as a friendly, open, kind community,” Stringham said. “What has happened to our community since then is deplorable.”

The council chair issued a letter late Sunday evening explaining the need for a face covering requirement. As the highly contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly throughout Utah, county officials worry they won’t be able to fully staff vital roles like teachers, police officers and firefighters.

“I spoke with a teacher this morning who has 10 teachers out at her junior high school,” Stringham said in an interview, “and she’s one of them.”

Dunn recommends respirators like N95s and KN95s, instead of cloth masks.

The order itself “requires respirators (or until you are able to obtain a respirator, a well-fitting mask or face covering as an alternative) in public spaces while indoors (or queueing outdoors) from January 8 through February 7.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department, front, and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson arrive at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

In her letter, Stringham noted the county had distributed the more effective masks to senior centers and libraries.

“I call upon the state of Utah, Utah school districts, the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office and Health Department to get these masks out of warehouse storage,” Stringham wrote, “and into the hands of residents.”

She went on to note that the county’s order does not say schoolchildren need a doctor note to prove they do not need to wear a mask.

“It isn’t worth a fight or angry exchange,” Stringham wrote, “to try and enforce compliance on someone else.”

— Tribune reporter Alixel Cabrera contributed to this story.