SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that bans future mask mandates in all Utah schools will be heard in the special session of the state legislature after passing a committee hearing, but it is not without controversy.
The Utah State Legislature's Education Interim Committee voted 16-7 in support of House Bill 1007, which prohibits face coverings in K-12 schools, but also colleges and universities.
"If you want to wear a mask, you can still wear a mask," Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, who sponsored the bill, said in an interview with FOX 13. "All this is really saying is as we come into the fall we can expect some normalcy."
Rep. Peterson pointed to a high rate of vaccinations among adults and the low rate of COVID-19 impacting children as a reason to prohibit face coverings when school returns in the fall. Lawmakers have also had their inboxes flooded with communications from conservative groups who have demanded an end to mask mandates.
"We have a beautiful thing here in Utah," said Tracy Henderson with the group Utah Parents United. "It’s called fundamental liberty. That you allow a parent’s right to choose."
But others questioned the wisdom of the ban, making the point that "mask wearing is just a victim of its own success . . . would any one of us recommend we stop wearing seat belts because the death toll on roads have decreased?"
Some education groups have concerns about planning for an uncertainty when classroom instruction resumes, stating that they thought the legislature was responding to a "very vocal minority." They also raised questions about medically fragile students.
"They didn’t talk to us, they didn’t talk to superintendents, they didn’t talk to principles," said Heidi Matthews, the president of the Utah Education Association."If we want to really learn from this pandemic, it’s that good policy is the inclusion of all voices, not just the loudest and we have a particular responsibility for our most vulnerable."
Members of the Education Interim Committee were divided, with some Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the bill — but for different reasons. Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, who said she was just released from the hospital for COVID-19, had a tube going into her nose to give her supplemental oxygen. She objected to the bill on local control grounds.
"To me there’s no difference between the governor telling everybody to wear masks or us telling people not to wear masks. I believe in local control where it should be held," Rep. Ballard said.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, worried schools with an outbreak would not be able to impose proper procedures to contain the spread.
"So even if we have a large outbreak in a school we can’t require them to have a mask in a school?" she asked Rep. Peterson.
"You need to work with the local health department, it falls under exigent circumstances and you can make that work," he replied.
Under new laws passed by the legislature in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, local health districts can still issue a public health order — but it must have the authorization of a county-level government.
Public comment on the bill was also divided with one woman complaining that her freedom to make medical decisions as a parent was taken from her, while other said the legislature was banning "common sense."
The bill will be voted on by the full legislature on Wednesday.
"At some point, there has to be someone who stands up in the room and says 'It’s time to be done,'" said Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo.
Others pointed out how well prevention efforts have worked in Utah schools.
"Sometimes we forget what a kind of miraculous effort that was to keep our children safe, to keep them going to school, to keep our teachers safe and still move forward," added Rep. Lowry Snow (R-Santa Clara).