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Utah legislature terminates mask mandates, pauses COVID testing in schools

Posted at 11:57 AM, Jan 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-21 19:12:17-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature has terminated mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties, effective immediately.

The House of Representatives voted 45-29 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 3, overturning the public health orders issued by local health departments in an effort to combat the surge in COVID-19 cases brought on by the omicron variant.

"At this point, mandates like this and these have caused increased polarization, increased public distrust and have accelerated the ever-increasing burnout people are feeling from pandemic restrictions," said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, who sponsored the resolution in the House.

Senate President J. Stuart Adams signed the resolution in front of FOX 13 on Friday, ending the mandates immediately. Because it is a joint resolution, Governor Spencer Cox has no signature or veto power and it carries the force of law under a bill the legislature passed last year.

In the video below, Senate President Adams signs the resolution ending mask mandates

Adams signs resolution

Rep. Pierucci argued the mandates were simply not effective in getting people to mask. But she also called out anti-masking activists.

"Voting to remove this mandate does not remove an individual’s ability to wear a mask. If you would like to? You should wear one," she said. "And you don’t need government’s permission to do so. While we’re on this subject, to people who are mocking individuals who wear masks who are being rude and combative to our front line health care workers: knock it off. We are better than this."

The debate over the bill got tense in the House, as lawmakers deliberated personal freedoms and the collective good. Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Kearns, said her constituents wanted a mandate.

"People, they don’t have the opportunity to stay home and stay safe because they have to teach our kids and stock our grocery shelves," she told her House colleagues.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said it was personal for her as she insisted that masks work.

"Have you lost a family member to COVID? I have. My husband and my mother both died within the last six months either directly from COVID or the effects of COVID," she said.

Under the law, a local health department can issue an order requiring masks. But a county council or commission can overturn it. The Republican-led Salt Lake County Council voted to uphold the mandate last week. But the laws the legislature passed last also gave it the power to act as a final check.

"Cities and counties are political subdivisions and health departments are agencies. And we, as a representative body and elected body, have the responsibility to represent the citizens of the state in a responsible way," said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield.

In a statement to FOX 13, Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson expressed disappointment.

"In spite of the misguided actions of the Legislature today, please continue to wear good-quality masks while in public. We are at very high rates of COVID spread and we are hopeful to have the Omicron variant of the virus behind us soon. Health experts agree masks worn properly help contain the spread of COVID. Let's all help keep our teachers teaching, our students learning, our hospitals operating, and our residents healthy," she said.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the executive director of Salt Lake County's health department, urged residents to mask up regardless of any mandates.

"Effectively protecting our most vulnerable community members—and ensuring that our businesses and essential services have the staff necessary to operate—requires layering our various prevention tools; this includes being up to date on vaccine, staying home when ill, and wearing a respirator mask in public during this surge. We encourage Salt Lake County residents and visitors to do these things, regardless of whether or not a mandate is in place," she said in a statement.

Republican Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham criticized the legislature's vote to terminate local health orders.

"I am dedicated to keeping our community open and our residents healthy. As our workforce diminishes and hospitals fill with COVID patients, I will continue to look for ways to help our community with this local issue. After discussing the need to help with schools, first responders, health care and businesses with the Speaker yesterday, it was disappointing to see the State interfere with local decisions dedicated to the well-being of Salt Lake County residents, without any other solutions offered," she said in a statement to FOX 13. "I will continue to look for solutions to getting us through the next few weeks and urge people to take the necessary precautions to protect the health of you and your families."

Republican Salt Lake County Council Vice-Chair Aimee Winder Newton also criticized the legislature in a post on Twitter.

Council member Dea Theodore was pleased with the decision.

So was council member Dave Alvord.

In an interview with FOX 13 on Friday, Rep. Pierucci hoped the legislature wouldn't have to revisit future emergency health orders.

"I’m hoping that omicron is the last variant, right? The final heave ho surge of this awful nightmare we’ve been living in," she said.

It wasn't the only action the legislature took in response to COVID-19 and a surge in cases. On Friday, the Senate voted 22-5 for House Bill 183, which pauses "test to stay," used to keep kids in the classroom during the pandemic. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said it allowed schools to more easily pivot to remote learning.

The state is also maxing out on COVID testing capabilities.

"It codifies a suspension of test to stay until the Senate President, the Speaker of the House, the governor and the state Superintendent of the Board of Education reinstate it," Sen. Weiler said.

The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said it was frustrated by the vote.

"It’s such a message to send to our schools this early in the session about what extent we are going to take to help us ride out this pandemic, especially in this surge," Heidi Matthews, the UEA's president, said in an interview with FOX 13. "It’s very frustrating to have the tools taken away that really impact our ability to keep our schools open, keep our kids safe, keep our learning going and really pay attention to our educators who are just at the breaking point."

Sen. Weiler said he hoped to address concerns brought by teachers unions in future legislation being drafted.

The bill returns to the House because of amendments attached to the bill. If it passes there again, it goes to Governor Spencer Cox who is expected to sign it.

The debates came as the Utah State Legislature is already grappling with COVID-19 within the Capitol itself. On Friday, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, announced she has tested positive for the virus. The House of Representatives confirmed that Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, had tested positive.

Senate President J. Stuart Adams is recovering after testing positive for COVID-19 last week.