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Lawsuit challenges Utah’s mask mandate bans and restrictions

Posted at 11:59 AM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 00:15:08-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A lawsuit has been filed against the state of Utah and Salt Lake County over restrictions on mask requirements in schools.

FOX 13 was the first to report on the lawsuit ahead of its filing Monday. The litigation argues that two big bills the legislature passed — House Bill 1007 and Senate Bill 195 — violate the rights of at-risk children in Utah to access a free education under the state constitution. Governor Spencer Cox, Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Salt Lake County are being named in the lawsuit (the Utah State Legislature itself cannot be sued) in their official capacities.

READ: Legislation threatened over SLC mayor's K-12 mask mandate

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court, involves 12 people who have formed a coalition to challenge Utah’s laws on K-12 masking. They include Ashley Weitz, who is suing on behalf of her 7-year-old child, Ezra.

“My child is afforded protections and rights under federal law that our district is now not able to make good on, because we can not implement the most basic risk mitigation strategies,” Weitz said in an interview with FOX 13.

Lawsuit challenges Utah’s mask mandate bans and restrictions

Weitz said political leaders in the state have ignored the advice of health experts at schools, when other places like Primary Children’s Medical Center continue to require masks in their buildings.

“The first, best protection we have is vaccines. They’re not available to children under 12 and the next best protection we have is universal masking,” said Weitz.

The bills the Utah State Legislature passed earlier this year severely restrict the ability to enact mask mandates. It allows a local health department to issue one, but it can be overturned by a county commission or council. In addition, emergency powers are restricted so that an executive like the governor or a mayor can declare a state of emergency or issue an order, but it must be approved after 30 days by a legislature, city council or county commission.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, issued a mask mandate for children in K-6 because that age group cannot be vaccinated. The county council voted along party lines to overturn it.

In contrast, the Grand County Commission allowed one to be issued by the Southeastern Utah Public Health Department. The Summit County Health Department will only allow one to go into effect if a school has an outbreak that hits 2% of its population.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall used emergency powers to implement a mask mandate that goes into effect on Tuesday for schools within the city. The House Majority Whip said in a Facebook post on Sunday that he would run a bill to limit such authority in future instances.

The lawsuit seeks to have the laws struck down. The plaintiff’s attorney, Greg Skordas, argued they were unconstitutional.

"The Utah Constitution provides that every person is entitled to a free and safe public education. These laws that have been enacted by the legislature since, seem to fly in the face of that. They say you can still go to school but you don’t have to wear a mask. If that’s not safe, you’re effectively saying you can’t go to school," Skordas said. "These kids want to go to school. They want to get the education they’re entitled to under the constitution."

Skordas told FOX 13 he would seek an emergency restraining order to block the law from being in effect as back-to-school events are happening now.

"There’s a lot of vulnerable kids. I’m like one of thousands of families in Utah whose going through this and I feel like we need to be acknowledged, we exist and our kids deserve a safe, in-person learning environment or as safe as possibly can be," said Jessica Pyper, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Jenny Nazzaro, a member of a group calling itself the Utah Concerned Coalition, which is backing the lawsuit, said they would seek no financial damages. They want the law declared unconstitutional and struck down.

"None of us want money. I just want to be able to sleep at night knowing my kids are at school safe as they can," she said.

The Utah Attorney General's Office, which represents the state, said it had no comment on the pending litigation. Neither did Governor Spencer Cox's office or the Salt Lake County District Attorney.

Judge Vernice Trease, who was assigned the case, is expected to schedule a hearing on the restraining order request in the next few days. Skordas said it was possible the lawsuit winds up in federal court because it concerns laws on disability rights.

Read the lawsuit here: