Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson discusses her intent to back a countywide mask mandate for children under age 12 in schools at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Health Department announced Tuesday that it intends to issue a mask requirement for school children in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the department, called the order — issued under guidelines set by the Utah Legislature this year — “what I see as the best way forward for Salt Lake County and to keep our kids safe in in-person learning.”
The order will include exemptions in last year’s state K-12 mask order, and will only apply to indoor settings. It can remain in place for 30 days unless it is overturned by the County Council.
“I encourage our council and our mayor to be clear and straightforward with our parents and our schools over the next few days so they know what to expect come school starting on Monday and Tuesday,” Dunn said.
County Council Chairman Steve DeBry posted on Facebook that he will be calling a special meeting of the council at 2 p.m. Thursday “for a vote on a resolution to overturn the mask mandate. The agenda will be posted tomorrow.”
During a special session in May, the Legislature banned school districts or the Utah Board of Education from requiring face masks in schools. Under the bill, schools and teachers can encourage mask-wearing, but they can’t legally mandate it to attend or participate in in-person instruction, athletics or other extracurricular activities during the upcoming school year.
Only counties can now implement mask mandates — but the Legislature can overturn those mandates.
Dunn said she’s been “comforted” by public statements of House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Gov. Spencer Cox saying they support local leaders working with public health leaders to determine what’s best for their communities.
She emphasized that national and local experts have recommended continued masking for children.
“The Utah Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and several of our esteemed pediatricians and physicians here in our community have all recommended universal masking in a K-12 setting,” Dunn said.
She said she’s been trying to reach a consensus with elected officials, but some have said they can’t “have an opinion” until they see an order in front of them.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson explained that Dunn is requesting an “order of constraint,” which Wilson says she supports. She will not terminate the order, meaning the decision of whether or not to overturn it or let it stand will go to the Salt Lake County Council.
State law requires health departments to give 24-hour advance notice of any intent to issue a health order. Dunn’s formal request will be issued Wednesday about noon, Wilson noted.
“I’ll be honest. I’m heartbroken that we’re here as our kids are close to entering school, they’ll be entering next week, many kids. And we know that they’re entering at, sadly, a time where the delta variant is very, very aggressive,” Wilson said.
She urged all residents to do everything they can do to help get the virus’ spread under control.
“I’m concerned about school kids, I’m concerned that they stay in school … but I’m also concerned about the future of our community, and we need to put COVID-19 behind us. That means all hands on deck, that means me accepting (Dunn’s) wise counsel and request, and it also means that we all continue to do our share,” the mayor said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall voiced her support for the order Tuesday,
“The potential for three or four children a week to be hospitalized with COVID-19 unless they wear a mask in schools is too great a risk. That’s why this afternoon I asked the county council to support (Dunn’s) expertise should she recommend a mask requirement for K-12 schools,” Mendenhall said on Twitter.
“The danger to our children isn’t in wearing a small, life-saving face covering during school hours. The potential danger is in schools having to close down, yet again, because of a rampant virus, or much worse, our children getting sick, spreading the virus, needing hospital treatment, suffering the unknown long term side effects, or even dying. We must act now to prevent this from happening,” she added.
Community members speak for, against mandate
Some parents and other community members for weeks have protested against potential mask requirements, and some have said they hope masks will be mandated come the new school year.
That continued earlier Tuesday when Salt Lake County Council members listened for two hours as dozens of parents and children spoke both in favor of or against instituting a countywide school mask mandate, as well as alternatively supporting one implemented by the Salt Lake County Health Department.
The health department has the authority to institute a mask mandate in schools in the county for 30 days. After that period, the department would have to seek approval from the County Council.
“I believe all of us are afraid, to be honest, on both sides,” said one woman who urged the council to support a mask mandate in schools. “If we can mitigate by wearing masks, let’s do it.”
Another woman said she works as a coach for an extracurricular sport in the Canyons School District. Last year, when masks were required in schools, she saw anxiety, migraines and adverse social effects in her students. But those things were worth it to keep kids safe from a more severe COVID-19 outcome, according to the woman.
“Those effects are nothing compared to them dying,” she said.
The woman added that one of her students told her she was able to retain a social life due to mask mandates preserving a safe school environment. The student said her parents wouldn’t have felt safe letting her participate in her sport with her friends if the school district hadn’t adhered to the safety measures.
A few students like wearing masks, but it’s important to keep them safe, the woman said.
“I know that masks are not ideal … but it is necessary right now,” she said.
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez