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Salt Lake County Council will hold a vote on whether to repeal mask mandate after listening to hours of comment

Meanwhile, County Health Department Executive Director Angela Dunn warns that Utah has maxed out its ability to test for COVID-19 cases, while infections flood schools.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County council member Laurie Stringham tries to maintain order as people react to comments made by council member Dea Theodore inside the Salt Lake County Government Center chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, where some were protesting the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.

After listening to more than two hours of impassioned comments from the public about a recent mask mandate, the Salt Lake County Council will hold a special meeting this week and decide whether to repeal it.

Council Chair Laurie Stringham and council member Aimee Winder Newton, both Republicans, previously joined with the three Democrats on the council in backing the latest countywide mask requirement. The order was issued by the county Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn late last week.

More than 60 people, not all of them Salt Lake County residents, showed up at the council’s regular Tuesday meeting to express their disdain for the mandate.

The protesters shared debunked claims about masks’ effectiveness and alternative treatments to COVID-19 that have become regular talking points of anti-maskers.

“Utah is a freedom-loving state,” said one resident from Salt Lake City. “We don’t want the government to save us from ourselves.”

They also shared stories of their kids getting bullied by teachers, administrators and fellow students at school since the mandate took effect Saturday. One parent from West Valley City said a bus driver refused to take his child even though she had a mask exemption.

“The bus driver got in her face, yelling at her,” he said. “It happens all the time. Whatever the intentions of this mandate, the unintended side effect is families like mine take a larger share of the price.”

Supporters of the mandate, who mostly participated remotely, implored the council to keep the mandate in place so their own family members and friends with compromised immune systems could be safe. They shared concerns about patients overwhelming hospitals and illness besieging schools as cases surge.

“We wear these masks,” said a Midvale resident, “to protect each other.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather inside the Salt Lake County Government Center chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, to protest the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Supporters also noted that the government enacts many mandates to protect public health and safety, like traffic laws, seat belt requirements and indoor smoking bans.

Regarding the clashes in schools, one Salt Lake City resident said, “That’s a problem with bullies; that’s not a problem with masks.”

The only person to speak to the council in person in support of the mask mandate was Alejandro Puy, a newly elected Salt Lake City Council member. The capital city has had a mask requirement in place for schools since August.

“In Salt Lake City and my district,” Puy said, “we welcome this decision.”

Most of the dozens of people who attended the meeting were unmasked, including County Council members David Alvord and Dea Theodore, despite the mandate still being in place and numerous police officers on-site.

Asked why the council wasn’t enforcing mask-wearing, a staffer for Stringham noted masks were handed out as people entered the County Government Center.

“However, the council agreed in our meeting not to be confrontational with the public to better keep the peace,” the staffer said in a text message.

After listening to comments, Alvord attempted to add an emergency amendment to the meeting agenda in an effort to repeal the mask order.

He told the residents in attendance that his “faith was restored” due to their turnout.

“We’re going to be OK. This country, we’re alert,” Alvord said. “We’re seeing what it’s like to have our liberties curtailed; we’re not happy with it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Council member Dave Alvord shakes hands with people gathered inside the Salt Lake County Government Center chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, to protest the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Stringham and Winder Newton again joined with the council Democrats to block Alvord’s motion.

But the council did approve a special meeting for later this week to hold a vote on the matter. Due to the late hour, the meeting adjourned and the time needed for staff to prepare an agenda, the special meeting will likely be held Thursday.

Before public comment began, Dunn gave a somber presentation about the current surge of coronavirus infections in the county. Last week alone, the county saw 17,943 cases of COVID-19, compared with 6,017 the week before. And 83% of cases in the surge are among the unvaccinated or those who have not received boosters.

“We know being up to date on your vaccine is the best protection from hospitalization,” Dunn told the council.

There’s also a strong east-west divide among the eligible population choosing to get vaccinated and boosted in the county, with most of the hospitalizations coming from the west side. About 40% of eligible county residents have been boosted.

Utah is now testing about 41,000 individuals a day, including about 9,000 in Salt Lake County, Dunn said.

“With that, we’ve maxed out our ability to test cases,” Dunn said. “As we start to see a potential plateau in cases, it’s not due to spread; it’s due to the limited ability to test because we are turning people away from our testing sites.”

Hospitals, meanwhile, are running out of COVID-19 treatments, like monoclonal antibodies, and the University of Utah Hospital has had to delay surgeries after 500 health workers became sick with the virus.

Dunn further noted that infections are flooding the county’s schools.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County health director Angela Dunn presents slides showing the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases during a Salt Lake County council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, attended by protesters opposed to the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.

“Test to stay is not going to be viable to keep our schools open much longer,” she said.

Stringham and Winder Newton previously expressed support for Dunn’s mandate due to concerns about shortages in vital industries, like public safety and hospitals.

But Alvord sparred with Dunn at the Tuesday meeting over her information and countywide mask mandate. He questioned the point of a mask mandate in sports arenas, where people are allowed to remove the covering to eat and drink. He scoffed at how the mandate would apply to large employers of thousands of people, or large private office buildings, given that the order says it applies to spaces “open to members of the public” or in spaces visited by the public.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Council member Laurie Stringham attends in person as she faces people gather inside the Salt Lake County Government Center chamber on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, to protest the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.

“There are a lot of inconsistencies in this order,” Alvord said. “... I don’t see a lot of science in this order.”

Dunn noted that public health orders need compromise to work, adding that she would work with county staff if clarifications to the mandate are needed.

“I agree, there’s no silver bullet. Masks aren’t going to immediately drop our cases,” Dunn said. “However, layered approaches matter. And every opportunity we have to stop a hospitalization or death, with minimal intervention, is something we should be doing as public servants.”

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