SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Council voted 6-3 to overturn a mask mandate issued earlier this week by the Salt Lake County Health Department, requiring face masks in schools for children under age 12.
After the vote to override the mask mandate, a crowd — mostly of people who opposed it — broke out into cheers, some chanting "USA!" Outside the council chambers, some in the unmasked crowd waved flags and sang "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the play "Les Miserablés."
The party line vote to overturn was widely expected after a majority of council members had shared their thoughts before the meeting.
Republicans Steve DeBry, Dave Alvord, Dea Theodore, Aimee Winder-Newton, Laurie Stringham and Richard Snelgrove, voted to overturn the order. Democrats Jim Bradley, Arlyn Bradshaw and Ann Granato voted to keep the order in place.
The mask mandate was sought by health department executive director Dr. Angela Dunn, who argued that with COVID-19 cases surging and so many people still unvaccinated, it was needed to keep people safe. While children are less susceptible to the virus, they can transmit it to others.
In the meeting, Council member Bradley tried to make a motion to delay any vote. As he tried to speak, some in the audience shouted they could not hear him, prompting him to remove his mask to cheers.
"What would happen if we asked the school children to wear masks for 30-40 days?" he said, arguing for time to determine if masks help cut COVID cases.
When a woman in the audience tried to shout at him, Chair DeBry interjected and shut it down.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have to nip this in the bud," he said, chastising the crowd to be silent.
Bradley's motion failed and council members lined up to speak before casting the vote to override the mandate. Council member Stringham said she had agonized over her decision, noting the thousands of emails, phone calls, texts and even visits to her home from passionate constituents.
Members of the council noted they had not seen such a response for any other issue. But the Republican members of the council overwhelmingly said it was not government who should decide this.
"I will be voting to overturn the mask mandate, but I still highly recommend masks for those who can," Council member Winder-Newton said.
"Government’s role is not to mandate compliance for the littlest among us. That is the role of parents," said Council member Theodore.
Following the meeting, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she was disappointed.
"I think it’s to the detriment of a good school year start," she said, noting the rise of COVID-19 cases within the county.
Utah's Democratic Party issued a statement condemning the vote, stating, "The Republicans on the County Council pose a clear danger to our children. By banning the mask mandate, they have chosen to put politics over the health and safety of kids in Utah schools, thereby endangering high-risk family members and condemning some Utah students to unknown long-term symptoms.” said Utah Democratic Party Chair Jeff Merchant.
"Democrats are committed to science, which holds that mask mandates will protect our children and most vulnerable; to freedom, especially the freedom to not be infected with a potentially deadly virus; and to neighborly love, because when we finally beat COVID-19, we know it will be because we all banded together to defeat it united."
Under a law the legislature passed earlier this year rolling back COVID-19 restrictions, it allowed a county health officer to issue a mask mandate. However, the law also let it be overriden by a county legislative body, like the Salt Lake County Council. Mayor Wilson acknowledged that she has few options.
"My wings were clipped," Mayor Wilson said. "The council, a part time council, not medical experts with the exception of one who has a dental background, made this call. And I think unfortunately Dr. Dunn and I will hope for the best and we’ll monitor and pivot as needed."
After the vote to overturn her order, Dr. Dunn issued a statement:
I thank the Salt Lake County Council for their quick decision so Salt Lake County parents, students, and educators have clarity. Though this is not the result I had hoped for, I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively with the Council and other stakeholders to address the COVID pandemic.
The science is clear: vaccination is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19; if you are not vaccinated, wearing a mask is safe and the second-best way to protect yourself and those around you. I chose to issue a mask order because the delta variant is a serious threat to children and our current transmission rates require a strong intervention—one proven effective last school year. Though the order will not stand, I’m optimistic that issuing it clearly signaled my level of concern as a medical professional, and that it will help more parents choose to send their children to school in masks.
I encourage parents and teachers to be good role models for children by following health recommendations to wear a mask when indoors in public, offering positive reinforcement to children, and helping ensure our community dialogue on this and related issues remains kind and respectful.
In a statement to FOX 13, House Speaker Brad Wilson suggested the law functioned as designed — allowing elected lawmakers to have the final say on health restrictions.
"Balancing equally valuable but sometimes conflicting interests is the most challenging task of policy makers, but I believe all elected officials in the state share the desire to protect our children’s health, including their physical and mental well-being. We all have different views of where the appropriate place is to draw the line, and in our democratic system, the will of the people as expressed through elected representatives is how that decision is made."
"Today the Salt Lake County Council, in its role as representatives of the people of Salt Lake County, looked at the many competing interests and views of their constituents, and made the decision they determined best. While many are likely happy with this decision and many are disappointed, as we move forward, we should all make the effort to take care of one another, treat each other kindly, and continue to work together through our flawed yet exceptional democratic process to make our State better. Our immediate focus continues to be educating our kids and ensuring they are caught up from the past years’ disruptions."
Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams (R-Layton) applauded the council's vote.
“The process we set in place with S.B. 195 is working. Over the course of the pandemic, we heard from countless parents across the state who were worried their ability to choose what is best for their child was being taken away. We listened to their perspective and concerns and passed S.B. 195 Emergency Response Amendments, helping place checks and balances on the process and giving more power back to the people.
“As Americans, it is a privilege to wake up every morning and make our own choices. This privilege can only be preserved if we ensure power is vested with the people. Decisions should not be made unilaterally. As a democracy, we need to uphold individuals’ right to choose. Mandates should be a last resort.
“We function better as a government entity when we inform the public of the facts. It is the role of the government to collect data then inform and educate the public. After that, it comes down to individual choice.”