Erin Mendenhall: Salt Lake City school mask requirement is legal and necessary

A mayor has the responsibility to keep our children safe from a potentially deadly pandemic.

Among the many letters from worried parents I received in the run-up to the start of the school year was one that included two photos of a school-age boy. In the first, the boy was wearing a mask and posing in front of a pair of parrots at Tracy Aviary. In the second, the same boy laid in a hospital bed connected to breathing tubes, a stuffed parrot tucked under his arm, while he received treatment for an immune disorder.

“I would rather have my high school student wear the first mask than the second,” his mother wrote.

Any parent would feel the same, and it was hard to not be overwhelmed thinking of all our 21,000 kids heading back to school this week.

Elected officials have no higher responsibility than keeping their constituents safe, and as the COVID-19 pandemic tears its way through Utah’s unvaccinated communities, it is my duty to do everything I can to protect as many Salt Lake City residents as possible from this deadly virus — especially those who are not yet able to receive a vaccine.

The Salt Lake County Council left our kids exposed when it overturned the recommendation of the county’s public health director, former state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, that masks be required for students countywide. Children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated and only half of the county’s children between 12 and 17 have been vaccinated. Since those children are now required to attend school in person, Salt Lake City schools were on a path to replicate some of the unmitigated disasters happening right now in school districts around the country.

That’s why last week, having directly received support from a majority of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education, I issued an executive order requiring students in grades K through 12 to wear a life-saving face covering when they returned to the classroom. Teachers, visitors and staff must do the same.

I did not take the action lightly, nor did I do it to pick a fight with the state Legislature, but I have a responsibility to use every tool at my disposal that is necessary to keep our kids — and the adults they encounter — safe from this virus.

The legal underpinning of the executive order is thorough and well founded.

First, under Utah Code a mayor may declare a state of emergency if they find that a disaster has occurred or the occurrence or threat of a disaster is imminent in an area of the municipality; and the municipality requires additional assistance to supplement the response and recovery efforts of the municipality. A disaster is defined by Utah Code as a number of things, including: an event that causes, or threatens to cause loss of life, human suffering, and a natural phenomena, including any epidemic.

Second, HB294 — also known as the Endgame Law — identified a series of metrics that, when reached, would automatically repeal a local emergency related to COVID-19. As soon as those thresholds were met, mayors could no longer issue an order related to COVID because of the existence of that specific provision. But when certain provisions of HB294 were automatically repealed on July 1, the one that required the automatic termination of local emergencies was among them.

And third, while another law enacted in the 2021 special session, SB195, did specifically limit the emergency authority of local health departments and the governor to require masks be worn, the law said nothing about the emergency powers granted to city mayors.

With the key provisions of HB294 repealed and SB195 not applying to city executives, I am doing exactly what the law currently says a city mayor is authorized to do to respond to this ongoing emergency situation.

And by being guided by public health data and the advice of medical experts, and using those authorities to protect our children and to try to slow the spread of this virus, I am doing what Salt Lake City residents expect and need from their mayor.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall encourages citizens to keep wearing masks, after the state mask mandate ends, during a news conference in front of Santo Taco shop, Friday, March 19, 2021.

Erin Mendenhall is the mayor of Salt Lake City.