SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox's office has exempted all state-run facilities from mask mandates in effect in Salt Lake and Summit counties.
"While Gov. Cox continues to support mask wearing if desired, we are not asking departments to enforce a mask mandate for visitors or state of Utah employees regardless of the location of vour worksites. The best tool against COVID-19 continues to be vaccinations and boosters," an email from the governor's office shared with FOX 13 said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson accused the governor of defying the mandate.
"While I appreciate the Governor’s authority on many levels, he does not have the authority to exempt state buildings and employees from the Salt Lake County mask requirement and is defying a public health order of constraint," Mayor Wilson, a Democrat, said in a statement.
"With Omicron cases threatening our community not only is this a blatant disregard for the law by our state’s chief elected officer, but a disregard for the health of our community and local authority. I would expect the Governor to set an example for us all by following the law during this challenging time."
In a statement on Monday afternoon, the governor insisted he had the authority to exempt state buildings.
"Under current state law, counties can issue health orders for their individual counties. We support Mayor Wilson in this regard and we encourage people in counties where a mask mandate has been issued to comply with that health order. However, counties do not have the authority to bind the state and, as such, a county order does not apply to state buildings. We stand by our earlier guidance to state employees to encourage but not require masks in state facilities, and we continue to urge all Utahns to be vaccinated and boosted," Gov. Cox said in a statement released by his office.
State workers were informed of the guidance on Monday morning. Exceptions include some Utah Department of Health-related facilities, according to one email that FOX 13 obtained.
"While mask wearing is supported if desired, state-owned facilities will not require employees or visitors to wear a mask in our buildings. Exceptions are state-operated 24-7 congregate care facilities that have existing mask requirements, the UDOH health clinic, and UDOH on-site structures for COVID-19 testing (sometimes known as “conexes”). The best tool against COVID-19 continues to be vaccinations and boosters," the email from Tracy Gruber and Nate Checketts, the heads of the soon-to-be created Utah Department of Health & Human Services said.
"We continue to support voluntary mask wearing, getting tested, and staying home when sick. High-quality masks were delivered to all UDOH/DHS buildings last week. If you would like a mask, please ask your building’s administrative support or employee support contact."
Other state agencies confirmed to FOX 13 they had issued similar directives following the guidance from Gov. Cox's office.
The Utah Department of Public Safety said its Driver License Division and Bureau of Criminal Identification (which handles fingerprints and background checks), both of whom have public facing sides, are not requiring masks and will not refuse service to anyone who isn't masked. However, they are offering masks to those who come in to their offices.
Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control told FOX 13 that masks are recommended inside state-run liquor stores, but not required.
The Utah State Capitol would be one of the most high-profile exemptions to a mask requirement. On Jan. 18, lawmakers will meet for the 2022 legislative session in Salt Lake City, right in the midst of Salt Lake County's mask mandate. Many legislators have vociferously opposed mask mandates, including running legislation to limit their reach, arguing that health departments were not accountable to the public like elected office-holders are.
On Friday, the Salt Lake County Health Department issued a public health order requiring masks indoors and in lines in an effort to stem the surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant. Republican Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham said she would not schedule a vote at this time on whether to override the mask mandate, given the high number of cases and first responders that have fallen ill.
Even if Salt Lake County's council upholds its mask mandate, the Utah State Legislature has the authority to terminate it under a provision of the COVID-19 "endgame" bill passed last year. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, called on the council to repeal it.
"I’m calling on them, and other jurisdictions in the state, to reconsider their actions. Instead, they should be focused on providing the best information possible to their residents regarding masks, vaccinations, and other prevention measures as well as early treatment information to prevent hospitalizations," he said. "While they may be well-intended, government mandates are not the answer. They have resulted in unnecessary divisiveness that is tearing our communities and our state apart."
On Friday, Senate President J. Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson said in a joint statement they would review the county health orders.
"I support individuals' right to wear or not wear a mask. However, we need to deal with COVID calmly, rationally and review and apply what we have learned over the past 22 months. We should take a balanced approach of saving lives, livelihoods and kids' education while preserving personal liberties," the Senate President said in a statement Monday. "We need to continue informing and providing Utahns with as many resources as possible, including making testing, vaccines/boosters and therapeutics readily available. After almost two years into the pandemic, I have full confidence in Utahns' ability to use good judgment to make personal choices without interference from the government."