SALT LAKE CITY — Public health orders around COVID-19 have now terminated after the state hit a series of metrics outlined under a bill passed by the Utah State Legislature, FOX 13 has confirmed.
The bill, nicknamed the “COVID-19 endgame,” lifts restrictions on gathering sizes and social distancing that were mandated by Utah’s Department of Health. It previously ended the statewide mask mandate.
"We can finally go to a full theater again, have an outdoor concert, go to Lagoon, enjoy the rides, not have to try to keep your mask on and it’s a great re-opening," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, told FOX 13.
According to the Utah Department of Health, the state on Tuesday afternoon cleared a key benchmark: More than 1.63 million prime doses of the COVID-19 vaccine allotted. Utah has received 1.65 million doses now. Previously, the state cleared the bill’s thresholds for case rates and COVID-specific intensive care unit hospitalizations.
The bill means that there will be no state mandated limits on gatherings and social distancing. It also terminates local orders requiring them, like in Salt Lake City and Grand County. However, there are some exceptions:
- Governor Spencer Cox has imposed a mask mandate for all state-owned facilities (including Capitol Hill, DABC stores, Driver License Division offices, etc.) until May 31. After that, each agency can decide if it wishes to continue with a mask requirement.
- A mask mandate remains in effect for all K-12 schools across Utah until June 15 or the end of the 2020-21 school year, whichever comes first.
- Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has imposed a mask mandate for all county-owned facilities.
- Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has imposed one for all city-owned facilities.
- Utah Transit Authority has said it will require masks and social distancing on all its buses and trains until Sept. 13.
- Private businesses can still require masks and physical distancing of customers.
Rep. Ray said he absolutely supported the right of private business to tell customers to "mask up."
"We did not want to step on the toes or infringe on private business, so if they want to require a mask they can certainly do that," he said.
In an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, Gov. Cox was pleased to hear the news.
"We’re headed in the right direction. Again that doesn’t mean that the virus is gone. So we encourage people to continue to take the right kinds of safety precautions. If you’re in big groups inside, still be careful. If you’re not fully vaccinated, wear a mask and protect yourself," he said. "But the message is: get vaccinated. The reason we set that 1.6 million number is we knew that would be enough to get vaccines, to get us as close to herd immunity as possible. It only works if you get vaccinated."
The bill was run in the legislature earlier this year with the intent of terminating public health orders and bringing an “end” to the pandemic. Gov. Cox has been critical of the bill, but he signed it because he believed the legislature had the ability to overrule him and terminate the mask mandate immediately.
Instead, the governor negotiated the thresholds with lawmakers. The state has had a fairly high adoption rate for vaccinations, although the pace has started to slow with more supply than demand now. At a recent briefing before a legislative committee, UDOH had said it could be the end of summer before the state achieved “herd immunity.”
"They weren’t exactly where public health wanted them, but they’re reasonable and I think it’s a good reason to celebrate with everyone that we’ve moved forward," UDOH Executive Director Rich Saunders said in an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday.
Saunders urged Utahns to exercise personal responsibility, warning that the pandemic is not over.
"Just because the legislature said the metrics are in law now, doesn’t mean the virus obeys them. The virus is independent. It’s going to do what it’s going to do," he warned. "It puts a lot of responsibility on the individual to make good decisions about what they do on their own and in public. There is no removal of good judgment."
The bill allowed local governments to issue their own mask mandates for a time. Only Grand County did so, arguing that with millions of tourists visiting and a 17-bed hospital in Moab, they cannot handle an outbreak. But under the new law, it will now be terminated.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall's emergency order requiring face coverings has also been terminated by the law. In a statement to FOX 13, the mayor said Salt Lake City still remains in the "moderate" transmission level for COVID-19.
"In our city, we still see more cases and fewer vaccinations in our West Side neighborhoods, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 for the entirety of the pandemic. Nonetheless, now that the metrics in the legislature’s endgame bill' have been met, as Mayor I am now prohibited from enforcing Emergency Orders specifically related to COVID-19, including the mask requirement," she wrote. "I plan to issue an executive order requiring masks at all City facilities shortly and as a City we will continue encouraging people to wear life-saving masks while COVID remains a very real and present risk to public health."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson also urged residents to keep wearing masks.
"COVID-19 continues to be a threat in our community. For the time being, we are asking Salt Lake County residents to continue to wear face coverings and encouraging all eligible individuals to receive a vaccine," she said in a statement.
But Gov. Cox said he did not believe terminating the health orders will lead to another surge.
"We got rid of our mask mandate almost a month ago and we haven’t seen a surge. Every day with the vaccinations happening? That’s what’s holding off the surge," he told FOX 13.
But Saunders said if there was a surge, UDOH would go to the governor and the legislature to revisit the "endgame" law.