As omicron rages, Utah lawmakers go after local COVID restrictions

After blocking state efforts to halt the pandemic, the Legislature decides it doesn’t like local controls either.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The push in the Utah State Legislature to undo local regulations comes as COVID-19 spreads faster than ever in the state.

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As the state braced for a winter surge of COVID-19 cases in November 2020, then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide mask mandate to stem the further spread of a virus that had so far infected more than 130,000 Utahns and killed more than 600.

The mask ordinance was made in coordination with the Utah Department of Health under the recommendation of Dr. Angela Dunn, who served as the state’s epidemiologist at the time. In a tweet, Herbert said the decision was “absolutely necessary to save lives and hospital capacity.”

Six months later, legislative leaders passed an “endgame bill” that lifted Herbert’s mask mandate, citing the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines. What the endgame bill did allow was local control over the pandemic response.

If last year’s session was about taking power from the governor and state health authorities, this year has been about taking power from local authorities.

During the first week of the 2022 legislative session, Republicans passed a joint resolution to abolish local mask requirements ordered by local leaders in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

The push to undo local regulations comes as COVID-19 spreads faster than ever in the state. Driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, hospitals are again at capacity with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Public schools are being forced to go remote to manage outbreaks, and the number of Utahns testing positive for COVID-19 each day is breaking records. Utah has passed 4,000 deaths from the disease.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called the passage of SJR 3 “misguided” and urged Utahns to continue wearing masks.

“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 in a statement.

According to the process lawmakers set up last year, county governments could overturn mask orders. Prior to the Utah Legislature terminating Salt Lake County’s mask mandate, the Salt Lake County Council held a vote on rescinding Wilson’s mask order but the majority Republican body didn’t end up having the votes to overturn it. Enter the Legislature.

“We followed the rules and did exactly as was intended by the law,” Wilson previously said when defending Salt Lake County’s mask mandate last week. “It’s unfortunate that they’re moving the goal posts today. They did it quickly and they did it at a time when we are seeing incredibly high hospitalizations, a lot of concern in our community and a lot of disruption.”

Dunn, who now serves as the executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, previously said she feared SJR3 could falsely indicate to some Utahns that the Omicron variant is not serious and that masks are not effective in preventing infection.

“Both those two things are false and I really just want the Salt Lake County residents to know out there that just because the health order might be overturned, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still be wearing their KN95 and N95 masks when they’re in public spaces,” Dunn said at a Tuesday news conference last week. “We’re still in a surge and we’re still overwhelming our hospitals and our essential services. So, we all still need to be wearing a mask regardless of whether or not it gets overturned.”

Suspending Test to Stay in Utah schools

Another bill halts the state’s Test to Stay program, which mandates COVID-19 testing for students in schools experiencing an outbreak. That bill got final approval from the Utah Legislature this week.

Instead, the bill allows students to learn remotely in the event of a large COVID-19 outbreak with the approval of the superintendent of the school, the governor, the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House. For a school to go remote under the bill, the local school board would have to hold a public hearing, then vote to support online classes and then get their request approved. Only then could the school go remote, according to the legislation.