SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's most populous county will be put under another mask mandate in an effort to stem an extreme spike in COVID-19 cases.
A 30-day mask mandate was issued for Salt Lake County late Friday by Dr. Angela Dunn, the executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. Mayor Jenny Wilson signed the order.
"This was necessary. It's temporary," Mayor Wilson said. "I know we can get through this together."
The public health order requires masks be worn indoors in public, including schools.
Exceptions to the order include:
- Individuals under two years of age and those with medical conditions, impairments or disabilities that prevent wearing a mask.
- Individuals engaging in work where they are alone and individuals for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to the individual related to their work as determined by local, state or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines.
- Individuals seated at a restaurant or other food/beverage establishment while they are actively eating or drinking.
In the video, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson signs the public health order:
Summit County has issued a similar order.
Salt Lake County's order takes effect at midnight and will be in force until 5 p.m. on Feb. 7. Dr. Dunn told FOX 13 that she hoped it would not be needed beyond that, but it was in response to the surge in cases brought on by the omicron variant. On Friday, Utah recorded a record 9,469 new cases and 13 deaths. More than 500 were hospitalized as of Friday with COVID-19 across the state.
"It’s only going to get worse unless we choose to take a layered approach for our mitigation purposes, and we need to do this for our essential services and our hospitals right now," said Dr. Dunn.
Earlier Friday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall requested Mayor Wilson and the Salt Lake County Health Department issue a mask mandate. More than 4,000 of the new cases were in Salt Lake County alone.
FOX 13 first reported earlier Friday that Dr. Dunn sent an email to the Salt Lake County Council, asking if they would support a mask mandate. Dr. Dunn said she believed the mandate would help cut the surge in cases.
"I think that’s what’s going to make it have the best chance to have an impact again, saving our essential services and hospitals," Dr. Dunn said. "It has a 30-day time frame on there for a specific reason. Because we know from other states that omicron comes really quickly and has the potential to leave really quickly. So we are anticipating this to hopefully, knock on wood, be a short time we’re dealing with this."
Last year, the Utah State Legislature severely restricted the ability for health departments to issue mask mandates, intending for elected officials to serve as a check and a balance against it.
"The Legislature has outlined a process in S.B. 195 with multiple checks and balances. While we believe government mandates should be a last resort, we will review the recently issued orders," House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams wrote in a joint statement late Friday. "As other areas have experienced, we hope Utah’s current COVID-19 surge is temporary. We continue to encourage Utahns to get vaccinated and take precautions to keep themselves and those around them healthy without overwhelming our hospitals."
Under Utah law, a health department can issue a mandate — but a county council or commission can overturn it. That happened last year when they overturned the school mask mandate.
But this time, members of the Salt Lake County Council may not all oppose a mask mandate. Council Chair Laurie Stringham's office told FOX 13 she was not scheduling a special meeting to vote on overriding the mandate. The council chair herself is home sick with COVID-19. The council has the ability to allow the order to go into effect without any action. Dr. Dunn said she had confidence the council would support the mandate.
"I feel like we made the right decision," Council member Aimee Winder Newton told FOX 13 of the school mask requirement. "On this one, however, we’re dealing with a variant that’s incredibly contagious."
Council member Winder Newton said she believed a mask requirement could help protect essential services and keep the economy going. She pointed out how much could be impacted if a lot of teachers, police officers and firefighters all got sick at once.
"Likely a lot of us, most of us, are probably going to get omicron at some point. But being able to spread this out so it eases the burden on the health care system, and also our economy I think is critical," she told FOX 13. "So that’s what made me decide to support this. Because looking at the data, the next few weeks are going to be rough."
Council member Steve DeBry said in a post on Facebook that he would oppose a mask mandate.
"While there currently is not a public health order issued by Dr. Dunn, I would vote to overturn any effort to mandate masks. Right now there is a statement that an order will be issued shortly," he wrote. "Regardless of a mandate, those who want to wear masks will and those who don’t will not comply. I still believe everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated should get their shots and if you are due for a booster to get the booster. It’s easy to find locations throughout Salt Lake County to take care of yourself and your loved ones. The only way to end this pandemic is through vaccinations."
In social media posts, Council members Dea Theodore and Dave Alvord also opposed a mandate.
Council members Arlyn Bradshaw and Ann Granato said they supported the mask order.
Coincidentally, the order came the same day a judge began considering whether to dismiss litigation challenging the state's laws severely restricting mask mandates.
Following arguments on Friday, 3rd District Court Judge Vernice Trease did not issue a ruling — but signaled some of the lawsuit over mask mandates might survive.
"If the motions to dismiss are denied, we move on to the hearing on the argument as to whether or not the statutes are unconstitutional," she told lawyers in the case.
A group of parents and the Concerned Coalition of Utah filed a lawsuit against Governor Spencer Cox and Salt Lake County, challenging laws that restrict the ability of schools and local health departments to issue mask mandates. They argue the laws violate children's right to an education under the Utah Constitution.
The parents' lawyer, Greg Skordas, pointed to the omicron surge as a reason to strike down Utah's laws restricting mask mandates.
"We’re approaching the point, your honor, where we are literally expanding our number of new cases on a daily basis," he argued. "If that’s not a matter of great public importance, I don’t know what is."
The Utah Jazz and Vivint Arena announced Friday that the mandate will be enforced inside the arena, both during basketball games and all other events. It will also be enforced at Salt Lake City Stars games, which are played at the Salt Lake Community College.
The arena's policy to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will remain in effect.
Read the mask mandate here: