In a 5-4 vote late Thursday, the Salt Lake County Council upheld a countywide mask mandate issued by its health department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.
Chair Laurie Stringham and council member Aimee Winder Newton, both Republicans, joined the council’s three Democrats in upholding the order. Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn issued the mandate late last week, outlining the county’s dire situation as the highly contagious omicron variant has blown COVID-19 cases skyward.
“I understand masks are highly politicized and no one likes to wear them,” said Winder Newton, who participated remotely after falling ill with COVID-19. “I know masking in schools is not ideal. I get that people bristle when government tells them what to do. But we have asked nicely, we have pleaded and begged and we need your help.”
Democrats Ann Granato, Jim Bradley and Arlyn Bradshaw all supported the mandate.
The council did not hear public comments Thursday and wrapped up their vote within 25 minutes of convening. Dozens of residents weighed in over three hours on Tuesday, both in person and online, in often-emotional testimony for and against the order that ultimately spurred Thursday’s emergency meeting on whether to overturn it.
As now written, the county Health Department’s masking requirement is in place for 30 days, expiring at 5 p.m. on Feb. 7.
The public health order requires all people in Salt Lake County, regardless of vaccination status or past COVID-19 infection, to wear well-fitting masks when in public places indoors or while lining up outside.
Ahead of Thursday’s narrow vote, Dunn reported another consecutive day of record-breaking infections in the county. She also noted that schools can no longer do “test to stay” because the state has maxed out its testing capacity.
“Vax. Mask. Stay home when sick,” Dunn tweeted.
Wilson, who co-signed the mask mandate as mayor, issued a statement shortly after the vote, noting the county saw 47,000 positive cases in the last two weeks and that schools are in “disarray.”
“Most importantly,” Wilson said, “high case counts lead to high hospitalizations and the loss of life.”
The mayor added that a “likely” decline of cases on the East Coast, where omicron first began surging in the U.S., was “some good news” for the county.
“Yet evidence is that we have not yet ‘peaked’ here in Utah,” she added. “I am very hopeful that we will see a rapid decline and that we have a healthier spring ahead, but in the meantime we must all do our part.”
As Utah hospitals experience another crush of COVID-19 patients, Winder Newton said health care workers are feeling “abandoned” by elected officials and the public.
“Our community is in a crisis which we have never seen before,” she said at the meeting. “I know in my lifetime we have never had the threat of having such a large percentage of the population out of work at the same time because of an illness.”
Stringham said she was worried about schools and public-safety departments now understaffed as essential employees fall ill. She also shared concerns about private businesses that might be forced to shut down due to staffing shortages.
Visibly perturbed, Stringham said she had shared her frustrations with state lawmakers.
“The only thing this council gets the right to do is either uphold the mandate or overturn it ... that is the formula given to us by the state Legislature,” Stringham said, referring to last year’s “endgame” bill that gave county councils or commissions the ability to overturn pandemic-related mask orders.
Stringham added that even as the County Council voted to keep the current mask mandate in place, lawmakers were waiting in the wings to overturn it on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve had those discussions with them,” Stringham said, sharing her further exasperation that county officials have warehouses of masks on hand they could be handing out to the public. “I don’t have the power outside of a mandate to declare that those masks need to go out.”
She said while she would rather give county residents a choice in whether to mask, a lack of leadership made that impossible. She then turned to address her frustrations to fellow council members.
“I’ve been trying,” Stringham said, “and I haven’t had a whole lot of time or the help of my colleagues right now — which I’m a little p****d about — to pull people together and see what [else] we could do as a community.”
“... It’s amazing,” she added, “how many people were unwilling to talk to me because they just wanted to make a statement and take a political position.”
While voting to uphold the mandate, Stringham said she would meet with state leaders Monday in hopes of finding other ways to keep schools open and crucial industries functioning.
“If we can come up with a plan,” she vowed, “I will call another meeting and we will overturn this.”
Council member Dea Theodore was among the four Republicans, including David Alvord, Richard Snelgrove and Steve DeBry, who voted to overturn the mandate.
“We’ve relied on science a lot and my background is science,” said Theodore, who has a degree in biology. “I believe in science. I love science. But it’s become clear the science is skewed in some ways.”
Council member David Alvord called repealing the health order “probably the most talked about topic in my lifetime, at least of my adult lifetime.” Feedback from constituents, he said, was “not even close” on whether to repeal, with emails overwhelmingly opposed to the mandate.
The councilman added that it was “perfectly appropriate” to rely on that input from constituents in seeking its repeal.
Alvord sparred with Dunn earlier in the week as she presented data on case rates, hospitalizations and the latest variant’s spread.
He also led attempts at a last-minute vote to overturn the mask order on Tuesday, a move the county attorney said at the time could open the council to legal challenges for its lack of public notice, which ultimately pushed the council to Thursday’s divided vote.
Several opponents of masking attended the meeting — unmasked — and Stringham had to call repeatedly for decorum in the council chambers.
The pro-mask Concerned Coalition held a rally of about three dozen people outside the County Government Center in support of the order.
Suzannah Rose, a music student at the University of Utah who has asthma, said she backed the mandate as a tool for keeping classes in-person, since it’s difficult to pursue a music degree online.
“We need to come together as a community and get over this surge together,” Rose said. “... I expect more common sense from people.”
Ian Wagman, a U. student who also attended the rally, said he was “incredibly relieved” after the vote. “I didn’t really expect it to be upheld,” he said.
Tribune reporter Daedan Olander contributed to this story.
• Editor’s note, 10:08 a.m., Jan. 14, 2022: This story was updated to specify how all council members voted.