How the Legislature Wants to Overturn Mask Mandates in Utah

An attempt to abolish local mask mandates is underway through the Utah Legislature, with leading GOP lawmakers decrying public health measures as the government goes too far.

On the first day of the 2022 session, the state Senate took a party vote to approve a resolution that would end ordinances in Salt Lake and Summit counties and a school term in Salt Lake City. Also on Tuesday, the state health department reported more than 39,000 new coronavirus cases since Friday, the highest weekend tally since the pandemic began.

If the House passes SJR3, lawmakers could end the mask requirement as early as Wednesday and the governor cannot veto a resolution.

But Sen. Dan McCay, who sponsors SJR3, and fellow Republicans have argued that soaring numbers don’t justify government-issued warrants.

“Essentially what we’ve done at the county level is make criminals out of people who have chosen not to wear masks,” Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, said during the Senate debate on the measure. “And that division is evident when you go to stores, when you go to schools.”

Senate Democrats countered that Salt Lake County’s mask order is broadly supported by that community and for them, a resolution that challenges local authorities is overreach, not mandate.

“My constituency was asking for a mask mandate before the mayor acted and council,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City. “Not having this was for many irresponsible and a lack of leadership on the part of the county.”

Senator Derek Kitchen, another Salt Lake City Democrat, said no one likes to wear masks but chooses to do so for the greater good.

“If you look around in this room, you see all the staff, a number of spouses and all the Democrats wearing a mask. Only one Republican,” he observed. “We’re not doing this to make a statement. We do it to protect ourselves. We do this to protect you.

McCay, who was not wearing a mask on Tuesday, questioned the effectiveness of face coverings in protecting against the omicron variant currently raging in the state.

“I liken this requirement to wear a mask to trying to stick your arms out of a car window to try and slow you down,” McCay said.

The comments echoed a stance Governor Spencer Cox took last week, when he wished an audience “good luck” if they wore cloth or surgical face coverings. An Intermountain Healthcare expert later called Cox’s comments “misleading” and said that while some masks are more effective than others, all are better than none.

But McCay said he heard from several teachers concerned about the mental health effects of requiring students to cover their faces, adding that her own daughter broke down in tears when she learned she would have to wear a mask. at school.

After about 45 minutes of debate, the Senate passed the resolution by a 22-5 vote, sending the measure to the House for consideration.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted after the vote that she had “no regrets” about issuing a mask mandate.

“Not for a second do I regret taking action to keep our children and teachers safe,” she wrote.

Salt Lake County’s 30-day public health order was issued earlier this month by Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the county’s health department. Its authority to do so comes from the so-called “end of the pandemic” bill, passed by the legislature last year.

Lawmakers have also given county governments the power to overturn a mask order. Last August, Salt Lake County Council voted 6-3 to overturn a mask mandate for K-6 students issued by Dunn.

However, this time around Salt Lake County Council could not muster enough support to overturn the warrant at an emergency meeting last week.

But lawmakers have given themselves the power to overturn county-level ordinances under the same “pandemic endgame” legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers — who sponsored last year’s bill giving the legislature the power to override local health orders — on Tuesday defended the state’s right to end the mandate of Salt Lake County, even though it was confirmed by members of the county council.

“There have to be layers,” the Cedar City Republican said, adding that mayors, councils and state legislators should each be responsible for reviewing a health order.

Dunn pleads for masks, with or without a warrant

At a press conference after Tuesday’s vote, Dunn said she was nervous, with state lawmakers reporting that the masks don’t work and the omicron variant is not of concern.

“Both of these things are wrong, and I really want the people of Salt Lake County to know that just because the health order might be overturned doesn’t mean they shouldn’t always wear their KN95 and N95 masks when they go. ‘re in public spaces,” she says. “Because we are still buzzing and still overwhelming our hospitals and essential services.”

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the push to rescind the county’s mask requirement was a cynical and hypocritical move by his fellow Republicans.

“We praise the virtues of local control until we want to control the locals,” King said, adding that it didn’t make sense to block efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, especially when current infection rates in the state are among the highest. in the countryside.

“County officials are acting in good faith. We should let them exercise that authority. Our top public health experts tell us that mask mandates in public places will save lives. And being required to wear masks in public imposes no significant cost or deprivation of liberty. So why on earth would the legislature shut down counties or cities? said the king.

Facing the voters of Salt Lake

Voting could be tricky for some Republicans in Salt Lake County.

McCay, who is running in the November election, is not taking many political risks in leading the charge to overturn the decision. His newly drawn district is strongly Republican. Partisan data for the new borders gives a Republican candidate a 24-point advantage over a Democrat.

Other Salt Lake County Senate Republicans facing re-election this year are also isolated after being drawn into heavily Republican districts.

But some House Republicans may face a no-win situation. Several represent precincts that are either swing seats or have a partisan edge in favor of the Democrats. A vote to nullify could hurt their prospects in the general election, but a vote to keep the mandate in place exposes them to a challenge from their political right.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, is one of the most vulnerable Republicans this year. His new district is expected to have a 10-point partisan bias for Democrats.

The swing-seat Republicans are Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan and Rep. Judy Weeks Rohner, R-West Valley City.

Even without those four, House Republicans would have enough to easily approve the resolution, as 38 votes are needed to pass. Republicans control 58 seats.

House Republicans were tight-lipped on the resolution, offering no public comment. It is expected that if the resolution reaches the House, it will pass.

New attempt to rein in local leaders

The resolution was not the only measure proposed to reduce the power of local authorities in the pandemic response, with another proposal relating to Mendenhall’s emergency mask requirement for Salt Lake City.

At the time, Mendenhall claimed she had the legal authority to make such a decision despite the fact that Utah lawmakers delegated that authority to county health departments, not city leaders. The obligation to wear a mask inside municipal facilities remains in effect.

Lawmakers could have overturned Mendenhall’s order at any time during the past four months. Instead, they decided to leave Salt Lake City alone.

This is until now.

HB182 specifically prohibits a chief executive of a municipality from exercising emergency powers during a pandemic, epidemic, or public health emergency. The House bill would leave local governments at the mercy of county authorities.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden’s proposal exempts all facilities in the state, including the Capitol Hill complex, from local health services authority. The bill specifically prevents local health departments from enforcing any state property law at any time, leaving that authority to the Utah Department of Health.

If the bill passes with two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, it will take effect upon the governor’s signature and would immediately end Salt Lake City’s mask ordinance.

Kim Bojórquez contributed reporting for this article.

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