SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Health Department is recommending children under the age of 12 who can't get the COVID-19 vaccine wear face masks when they go back to school next month.
They can't mandate it again because the Utah State Legislature won't allow it.
At a news conference on Thursday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson was joined by Council Chair Steve DeBry and Dr. Angela Dunn, the new executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. They were alarmed at a surge in COVID-19 cases — driven by unvaccinated people.
"This is preventable. All we have to do is go get vaccinated," said Council member DeBry.
The county said 97% of its cases and hospitalizations are because of unvaccinated people. On Thursday, Utah's Department of Health reported another 815 cases.
"When school starts up, I recommend kids under the age of 12 be wearing their masks indoors. This will prevent the spread of COVID," Dr. Dunn said. "It’ll keep our kids in a safe environment and allow them to have the full in-person experience."
Children under 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Dunn said the more adults around children that are vaccinated, the less likely they would be to get and transmit the virus.
But the Utah State Legislature will not really allow counties to enact mask mandates. They explicitly banned them in schools, but did allow a path for local officials to try in exceptional circumstances. Mayor Wilson questioned why they would go to the effort.
"The Salt Lake County Council can override us, but ultimately, the state legislature can override the decision of our county council," she said. "For that reason, advocacy, if you believe and want further restrictions, needs to be to the state legislature."
Dr. Dunn called it "futile" to seek a change in the mask mandate ban.
"At this point? It’s really futile. We’ve been in discussions, we as public health folks local and state, have been in discussions with legislative leadership and it’s very clear their intent is not to have a mask mandate," she said. "That’s why it’s important for us to come together as a community and normalize kids under 12 wearing masks indoors."
In an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday, House Speaker Brad Wilson said local health departments still have options, even with masks.
"I think what we’ll probably see... is as we move into the fall, there will be efforts focused on prevention but also efforts on how to contain if someone gets COVID and how do we prevent it from spreading across the school," he said. "That might include masks in some way, shape or form."
FOX 13 reported earlier this month that the Utah Department of Health was drafting back-to-school guidance. It would "recommend" masks for unvaccinated people, but focus on COVID-19 testing to keep schools open in the event of an outbreak.
Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, said he shared the concerns about a surge in COVID-19 cases. But he added there was a way out of this for people: get vaccinated.
"It’s everyone’s own decision whether or not they choose to get vaccinated. But this is not the same virus we had a year ago. It’s more contagious and it causes more problems," he said. "I hope people understand when they choose not to get a vaccine, that’s in fact what they’re choosing to take risk on. That’s their decision, I guess."