Once House Republicans emerged from a Friday morning closed-door meeting, the fate of mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit Counties was sealed.
On a 45-29 vote, the House passed SJR3, which immediately terminated the two public health orders. Twelve Republicans joined all 17 Democrats in voting against blocking the mandates. The 45 yes votes on the resolution were provided by Republicans. Most of the votes to overturn the mandate — 80% — were by made Representatives who represent areas outside of Salt Lake and Summit County. In 2020, Summit and Salt Lake were two of just three counties won by Democrat Joe Biden.
Friday’s action by the House immediately ended both public health orders, but private businesses are still free to mandate masks for customers.
Last year, lawmakers took away the ability of local school districts to issue a mask mandate. Instead, they gave that authority to county health departments with the approval of the county governing body. Salt Lake County followed that process two weeks ago when Dr. Angela Dunn issued a 30-day mask-wearing requirement in the county. The Republican supermajority on the Salt Lake County Council did not have enough votes to terminate the mask order. That’s when the Utah Legislature decided to step in.
House Republicans offered two arguments to justify their vote to end the mask mandate. Public health officials are doing the best they can to manage the pandemic, but elected officials have a wider view of the situation. At the same time, they argued, the government really doesn’t have a role in dealing with the pandemic.
“I understand many people are looking for ways to combat this omicron surge. I understand many people want to bring about an end to this pandemic. Doing something for the sake of doing something is not a good enough justification,” Rep. Candace Pierucci, R-Riverton, said.
Republicans who have long advocated for local control explained Friday’s vote was not abandoning that principle.
“I believe we have done a disservice throughout this country as we’ve approached the COVID-19 pandemic in trying to find government solutions. The proper role of government, in this case, is to educate and to advocate, not mandate,” Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn issued statements urging residents to continue following medical advice despite Friday’s vote.
“In spite of the misguided actions of the Legislature today, please continue to wear good-quality masks while in public. We are at very high rates of COVID spread and we are hopeful to have the Omicron variant of the virus behind us soon. Health experts agree masks worn properly help contain the spread of COVID. Let’s all help keep our teachers teaching, our students learning, our hospitals operating, and our residents healthy,” Wilson said.
“Effectively protecting our most vulnerable community members — and ensuring that our businesses and essential services have the staff necessary to operate — requires layering our various prevention tools; this includes being up to date on vaccine, staying home when ill, and wearing a respirator mask in public during this surge. We encourage Salt Lake County residents and visitors to do these things, regardless of whether or not a mandate is in place,” Dunn added.
Dr. Phil Bondurant, Summit County health director, disagreed with the decision, noting the mask mandate had followed all legal requirements.
“I remain firm in my belief that the actions taken by Summit County and the Summit County Health Department over the last two years have saved lives. Although the outcome of the vote regarding SJR003 provides a different direction than our Public Health Order, I still believe the action taken to require masks in public places, including schools, was the right one for Summit County,” Bondurant said.
The Senate resolution has been bottled up in the Utah House since the Senate rushed the bill through on the first day of the session. Some House Republicans have been trying to sort through the tricky politics of overriding local officials, especially in an election year.