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Will the Utah Legislature overturn Salt Lake County’s mask mandate?

Lawmakers gave themselves the authority to overrule local governments last year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smith Library at 3300 S. 810 East offers patrons n95 masks as the Salt Lake County Health Department requires masks in county branch libraries as seen on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.

Even though it appears the Republican supermajority on the Salt Lake County Council may not have enough votes to overturn the 30-day mask mandate issued on Friday, that may not be the case with the Utah Legislature.

Lawmakers return to the Hill next week, and there could be a move to override the county’s mask mandate, especially if the council does not take that action themselves.

Last year, lawmakers passed SB195 to curb the governor’s emergency powers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving them the ability to cancel any emergency order with a majority vote of both houses. That’s the reason Gov. Spencer Cox did not order masks in Utah’s schools last fall — it was almost certain lawmakers would slap down that move in short order.

The so-called “pandemic endgame” bill, also approved last year, allowed local health departments to require face coverings, but the county council or commission could undo that move. That happened last August when the Salt Lake County Council voted 6-3 to stop a mask mandate for K-6 students.

But don’t think the Salt Lake County Council has the last word.

SB195 has a clause giving the Utah Legislature authority to rescind a public health order through a joint resolution. Joint resolutions only need a majority vote in both houses of the Legislature. Resolutions do not require the governor’s signature, which means Cox can’t veto them.

Shortly after the announcement of the mask order on Friday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, issued an ominous-sounding joint statement.

“The Legislature has outlined a process in S.B. 195 with multiple checks and balances. While we believe government mandates should be a last resort, we will review the recently issued orders,” the statement read.

Adams and House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, issued similar statements on Monday that it’s best to let people decide on their own how best to manage COVID-19 without a government requirement.

“While I stand adamantly against government mandates, I believe it is imperative for all of us to take personal responsibility to decrease our risk of infection, reduce the burden on our healthcare workers, and protect those around us,” Schultz wrote.

“I have full confidence in Utahns’ ability to use good judgment to make personal choices without interference from the government,” Adams said.

It may look heavy-handed to give lawmakers outside of Salt Lake County a say in how the county conducts its business. But that’s not much of a deterrent on Capitol Hill. To many lawmakers, counties and cities are seen as political subdivisions of the state, which the Legislature has primacy over in Utah.

The timing could play a significant factor, too. With the 2022 session set to get underway next week, an effort to overrule the Salt Lake County mask order would be pretty straightforward and wouldn’t require a special session.

House Republicans are scheduled to meet in a pre-session caucus on Wednesday where it’s expected the issue will be discussed.

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