SALT LAKE CITY — The statewide mask mandate will be lifted by April 10 under a bill that passed the Utah State Legislature in the final hours of the 2021 session.
The bill — dubbed by its sponsor the "COVID-19 endgame" — sets metrics for lifting health restrictions. It was carefully negotiated between the legislature, Utah's Department of Health and Governor Spencer Cox.
In an interview with FOX 13 on Friday night, Gov. Cox said he would be willing to sign it.
"It’s much better than it was. The original version of the bill had the mandate ending immediately. This was a big push for us," he said. "Look, we’re vaccinating 25,000 people every day. We want to get through the most vulnerable, we will be through the most vulnerable by April 10 so we feel much better about the bill."
House Bill 294's final version said other restrictions can begin to be loosened once Utah hits 1.63 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the 14-day case rate is less than 191 per 100,000 and the state's ICU hospitalization rate is less than 15% on a seven-day average.
The mask mandate would be lifted April 10. However, the bill now allows the mandate to remain for gatherings with crowds above 50. County governments would be able to adopt their own mask mandates, too. The bill also preserves some health restrictions for K-12 schools, and it does not restrict businesses from requiring them.
But all public health orders would terminate by July 1.
The House voted overwhelmingly for the bill (while simultaneously rejecting other efforts to lift the mandate immediately). It was Senate Republican leaders who indicated they were uneasy with the bill and questioned its need, as Utah was doing well with vaccine adoption.
"We didn't legislate our way into the pandemic," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who later added: "I'm not in favor of trying to legislate our way out of this."
But on Friday night, they came around and backed the bill.
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City raised concerns about the bill, pointing out the pandemic is not over.
"Certainly we're going to be making decisions based on science," she said.
Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, pointed to the bill's metrics and the negotiations between the governor and the department of health.
"It’s really who would have thought when we were in the middle of this that we were able to offer such a bill that shows how we can exit and provide an endgame to this," he said.
Reacting to the bill's passage, the mayor of Utah's largest county said the legislature is moving too fast.
"The legislature clearly has a crystal ball I don’t have. I expect we will want to open and move freely but wear masks in public to protect our kids until they are vaccinated or we reach herd immunity. I continue to follow CDC guidance and I’m certain April 10 is too soon," Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a statement to FOX 13 on Saturday.
When Utah first entered the pandemic, then-Governor Gary Herbert was reluctant to issue a mask mandate, but allowed counties to do it with his permission. He issued a statewide mandate in November when COVID-19 cases surged. Gov. Cox has kept the mandate in place and argued in favor of it.
But lawmakers have faced increasing pressure to loosen restrictions, particularly as more people get vaccinated. They pointed to being hit with constituent communications, many that complained the masks were an attack on their personal freedoms.
It was a year ago Saturday that Gov. Herbert issued his first state of emergency for the novel coronavirus.