SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of Utah’s most populous county are considering how far they can go with public health orders and mask mandates following bills passed by the state legislature on COVID-19.
“It is quite frustrating,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said after a briefing Tuesday on bills that limit the reach of public health and emergency orders.
Members of the Salt Lake County Council were briefed on the impact of a bill that requires the legislature to review any emergency order issued by a governor. It also allows county commissions or councils to review and terminate emergency declarations.
“They’ve carved out for themselves the ability to pre-empt local legislative action,” Bridget Romano, a deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney, told the council in her briefing.
“The legislature believes that the government closest to the people governs best, so I’m sure they would never!” Council member Arlyn Bradshaw rhetorted.
The district attorney’s office also laid out the council’s options after the passage of the bill nicknamed the “COVID-19 endgame” that lifts all public health orders on July 1 or earlier as virus cases decline and vaccinations increase, as well as the statewide mask mandate on April 10.
The bill, signed into law by Governor Spencer Cox after negotiations with the legislature, keeps in place a mask mandate for all K-12 schools and gatherings of more than 50 people. It also has a provision that allows county governments to issue a mask mandate, if local health departments or county executives ask for one.
Mayor Wilson has said she is still contemplating whether or not to seek a new one after April 10. The council also questioned how far they can go with it. Council Chair Steve DeBry asked what if the local health department and the council disagree.
“What if we are not in concert? What if the county council feels one way and [Salt Lake County Health Department director Gary Edwards] feels another way? Then what?” he said.
“No local mask mandate,” Romano replied.
Council member Richard Snelgrove asked about cities asking for a mask mandate. Romano told him it was possible they could ask the county to issue one for their specific locale (similar to what Salt Lake City did when it remained in an “orange” level of health restrictions last year because of a high number of virus cases).
“Private businesses obviously would still be able to require one,” Council member Jim Bradley noted. “What about public places? Like this building?”
It was also possible the mayor could issue a mask mandate to only cover government facilities, the council was told.
But the final decision on the future of a mask mandate will come back to the council. Chair DeBry told FOX 13 last week he would schedule a special hearing on April 9 — the day before the statewide mask mandate is lifted — to look at the latest data to decide what to do next.
Council member Dea Theodore said people can still wear masks without a mandate.
“There’s going to be people that want to continue wearing their masks whether or not we continue the mask mandate. I think people can have their free will and choose to wear their masks as long as they’d like and they’re comfortable doing that in the long term,” she said.
Salt Lake County is not alone in this situation. Weber County commissioners met on Monday to consider whether or not to issue a new mask mandate under the law.
President Biden has asked states to extend mask mandates or issue new ones as COVID-19 cases surge again in parts of the country. On Tuesday, Gov. Cox’s office told FOX 13 he had no plans to issue a new mask mandate.