SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Friday that she has ordered masks to be worn in the city's schools for grades K-12.
Mayor Mendenhall made the decision after the Salt Lake City School District said it would not recommend a mask mandate. The mayor previously said she would use the emergency powers of her office to order masks be worn if that was the only option.
"The safety and the health of our children, our students, even our healthcare providers and our broader community is hanging in the balance," Mayor Mendenhall said in an interview with FOX 13 on Friday. "And I heard from a majority of the Salt Lake City school board members, privately and personally, who supported me taking this action. And it's absolutely the thing that should be happening right now."
The order comes a week after the Salt Lake County Council overturned a similar mandate from Dr. Angela Dunn, the executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. Grand County issued a K-6 mask mandate after the Southeastern Utah Public Health Department coordinated with the county commission.
Earlier this week, the mayor said she planned to order the mandate, but wanted to first receive a recommendation from the Salt Lake City School Board. She asked them to call an emergency meeting to vote. In a statement on Friday morning, the Salt Lake City School District punted to her.
"We recognize that the mayor has broad powers, independent of the board of education, under the Disaster Response and Recovery Act to address local emergencies and disasters affecting the city. Accordingly, we will await the mayor’s decision on whether she will issue an executive order," the district said. "We strongly support the belief that we as a community must protect our children who are not eligible to get vaccinated at this time by wearing masks. Further, we would like our families to understand that the current law prohibits the district or a school from issuing a mask mandate."
The mayor said she extended her order through 12th grade due to rising cases among all school-aged children.
"As we heard Dr. Dunn talk about the vulnerability of the entire K-12 population, and the fact that in Salt Lake County less than 50% of that vaccination eligible population has been vaccinated," she said. "They are extremely still vulnerable. We’re seeing that from the data just this week with over 800 cases of kids contracting COVID, which is 700 more than we had this time last year."
On Capitol Hill, there was conspicuous silence to the mayor's action. House Speaker Brad Wilson's office had no comment. Governor Spencer Cox's office did not respond to requests for comment. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' office said it had no comment.
"Our priority is to keep students safe and ensure in-person learning options are available for K-12 students. We will continue to monitor the data and oversee the situation not only in Salt Lake City but across the state," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement to FOX 13.
A local teachers' union and school district superintendent approve of masks in schools.
"We are appreciative of the mayor and her understanding that she is concerned about our students. We are concerned as well,” said Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson.
The American Federation of Teachers Utah also praised the mayor.
"We believe she is acting in the best interest and safety of students. We have heard from faculty and staff in our public schools and they overwhelmingly support the wearing of masks. As a union we have supported mask mandates and applaud the Mayor for following CDC guidelines and the recommendations of our local health care officials and experts," said union president Brad Asay.
But Utah Parents United, a group that has opposed mask mandates in schools, questioned her authority.
"It is still unclear as to how she might have the authority to issue a mandate," the group said in an email to FOX 13. "We are wondering about how a mandate will be policed. We are also very worried about children being bullied in the mix of uncertainty and chaos."
"I’m fine [with the mandate] if it keeps them safe,” said Sheila Allen, a mother of three.
"I don’t really mind it since I’ve been doing it for a while,” said Mountain View Elementary student Jordy Ewert.
Laws passed by the legislature earlier this year severely restricted the ability of local health departments to issue mask mandates unless they had the blessing of county commissions or councils. But Mayor Mendenhall said the same laws also allowed her to do it under emergency powers.
The order can only be issued for 30 days under emergency powers laws. Then it can be extended by the city council.
Mendenhall believes city attorneys found a loophole in the legislation, allowing her emergency order. Last week, the Salt Lake County Council voted down a mandate recommended by the local health department. As for a challenge, she says she’s ready.
"It’s entirely possible. There have been a lot of legal challenges to Salt Lake City over completely legal actions we have taken and I’m very confident in our attorneys assessment of our authorities," she said. "I don’t know what the legislature might do, but this is completely in legal authority for myself or any mayor to take this kind of an action."
The order comes as the first cases of COVID-19 have been found in schools across Utah, along with a statewide surge in the number of cases and deaths. Hospital officials are also facing a crisis of caring for those with stricken with the coronavirus.
"We are definitely in that position where we are struggling to find ICU beds to care for all the patients that need them, that includes COVID and non-COVID patients alike," said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem with Intermountain Healthcare.
Stenehjem added that children pose a massive risk of increased transmission of the delta variant that has created the biggest issue in battling the pandemic.
"What I fear will happen is we're going to see school-based transmission that may be pretty dense, meaning that there's a lot of transmission in unmasked and unprotected children and that's going to lead to a rise in cases in children, but then a spillover in parents and grandparents in those children that then go home and need to be cared for."