Utah Gov. Cox bucks county-wide mask mandates, exempts state-run facilties from COVID-19 masking

Utah is currently facing record-high coronavirus cases driven by the more transmissible omicron COVID-19 variant.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "There is no way the Legislature is going to approve a mask mandate at this stage," Gov. Spencer J. Cox said on Tuesday, during his administration's update on the ongoing pandemic, Aug. 31, 2021 at the Capitol.

Gov. Spencer Cox waived mask mandates for all state-run facilities on Monday, bucking current and future county-wide mandates as the omicron variant rages through Utah.

“While Gov. Cox continues to support mask wearing if desired, we are not asking departments to enforce a mask mandate for visitors or state of Utah employees regardless of the location of your worksites. The best tool against COVID-19 continues to be vaccinations and boosters,” the governor’s office said in an email obtained by FOX 13 — who first reported about Cox’s exemption.

Exceptions include certain Utah Department of Health COVID-19 testing sites, as well as state-operated 24/7 congregate care facilities that mandate masks, according to an email sent to employees at the health department and Utah Department of Human Services.

Public colleges and K-12 schools are not exempt under the new guidelines, the state officials confirmed.

Salt Lake and Summit counties issued new mask mandates last week. Preempting the possibility of similar mandates from other counties, the governor’s mask exemption applied state-wide, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. The guidelines encouraged vaccines, boosters, COVID-19 testing, and staying home if exhibiting symptoms.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson disagreed that Cox had the ability to remove county mask requirements from state buildings.

“While I appreciate the Governor’s authority on many levels, he does not have the authority to exempt state buildings and employees from the Salt Lake County mask requirement and is defying a public health order of constraint,” Wilson said in a statement. “With Omicron cases threatening our community not only is this a blatant disregard for the law by our state’s chief elected officer, but a disregard for the health of our community and local authority. I would expect the Governor to set an example for us all by following the law during this challenging time.”

The governor disagreed later Monday.

“Under current state law, counties can issue health orders for their individual counties. We support Mayor Wilson in this regard and we encourage people in counties where a mask mandate has been issued to comply with that health order. However, counties do not have the authority to bind the state and, as such, a county order does not apply to state buildings,” Cox said in a statement Monday afternoon.

Bridget Conway, Summit County’s deputy director of communications and public engagement, said Monday afternoon that the county had not received information from the governor’s office regarding the masking exemption.

“At this time, we believe, whether mandated or not, that face-coverings are necessary and mandatory in all indoor spaces open to the public in Summit County,” said Conway in a statement.

The governor’s decision comes three days after the Salt Lake County Health Department announced a 30-day, countywide indoor mask mandate due to record-high coronavirus cases across the state propelled by the more transmissible omicron COVID-19 variant. The masking requirement in Salt Lake County is set to end on Feb. 7 and applies to anyone over the age of 2 years old, regardless of their vaccination status.

“We desperately need to use every tool available to ensure our hospitals can continue providing excellent healthcare through this surge,” said Dr. Angela C. Dunn, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department, in the public health order dated Jan. 7. “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.”

Last Thursday, Summit County health officials implemented a similar mask mandate in all public spaces from Jan. 7 to Feb. 21.

“This was not an easy decision and certainly not an action we wanted to take at this stage of the pandemic,” said Summit County Health Officer Dr. Phil Bondurant in a statement on Jan. 6. “I am especially concerned for our frontline workers, our children and staff in schools and the current strain on our healthcare system. Masks combined with vaccines are critical tools to help us weather this surge and protect our critical services.”

Some of Utah’s top lawmakers also disagreed with the county-wide mandates.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said whether or not to wear a mask was Utahn’s personal choice.

“I support individuals’ right to wear or not wear a mask. However, we need to deal with COVID calmly, rationally and review and apply what we have learned over the past 22 months,” Adams said. “We should take a balanced approach of saving lives, livelihoods and kids’ educations while preserving person liberties.”

Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, called on Salt Lake County officials to reconsider their mask mandate, recommending that officials focus on vaccines and other preventative measures.

“While they may be well-intended, government mandates are not the answer,” he said in a statement. “They have resulted in unnecessary divisiveness that is tearing our communities and our state apart.”

On Monday, the Utah Department of Health reported over 24,000 new COVID-19 cases in the state. Utah’s rolling weekly average for positive tests was 7,768 per day, according to figures from the Utah Department of Health.

Last year, Utah lawmakers approved Senate Bill 195 that would limit emergency powers of the governor and public health officials during health emergencies lasting longer than 30 days.