SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Senate quickly passed a resolution to undo Salt Lake and Summit counties' mask mandates.
In a party line 22-5 vote late Tuesday, Republicans voted in support of a resolution to overturn the local health orders. It now goes to the Utah House of Representatives.
Lawmakers on Utah's Capitol Hill are moving quickly to the mandates, introducing measures to overturn public health orders and limit the powers of mayors in the future.
Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, would immediately terminate the mask mandate for Salt Lake and Summit counties. The bill was introduced on the opening day of the legislative session and rocketed onto the Senate board for debate without a public hearing.
"This has not been easy for anyone. What we have seen is an erosion in public trust as we’ve tried to force or compel people to do certain things for the benefit of others," Sen. McCay told reporters on Tuesday. "What’s really clear is listening to my constituents and honestly listening to people around the state, is they’re happy to work together to come up with common shared, health objective and goals, but they’re not willing to continue to let the government tell them what to do."
The resolution had the backing of Republican leaders in the Senate. Under laws they passed last year terminating COVID-19 health restrictions, the legislature built into it the power to act as a final check on public health orders. Under the law, a local health department can still issue a public health order like a mandate. A county council or commission can override it. But the legislature gets the absolute final say.
Because it is a joint resolution, it does not need a signature or veto from the governor.
Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, insisted the legislature was merely acting within its power.
"This isn’t a local control issue. This is a process that was set up, bipartisan, nonpartisan, it was a process we set up long ago," he said. "We’re just simply following the process."
Senate Democrats fought it on a Tuesday floor debate.
Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, argued that masks were protecting people from contracting COVID-19. Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, argued it was a small measure to keep people safe.
"We are overturning our local government. Our local government decided this is where they wanted to go," said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights.
But Sen. McCay questioned the effectiveness of masking with the omicron variant and argued mandates were not the way to go.
"They know how to govern themselves, but no one else can govern them," he said. "This is the fact that makes mandates so reprehensible."
Senate GOP leaders insisted Utah was handling the pandemic well and did not need a mask mandate.
"Look at the data. We have some of the lowest case fatality rates. We have the best economy," said Sen. Adams, who himself was back after contracting a breakthrough case of COVID-19.
Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson wished the resolution a quick death in a statement to FOX 13.
"I hope common sense prevails and this bill joins the dozens that are filed and never see the light of day," she said.
Republican Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham, who was the swing vote to uphold the mandate, warned that lawmakers weight the fate of more than a million people.
"The Legislature is using their policy making authority to respond as they see fit. This issue isn't as cut and dry as some would like it to be. It affects 1.2 million people and encompasses a lot of data and public opinion. I wish the Legislature well as they tackle this complicated issue," she said in a statement.
The Salt Lake County Health Department, which sought the mask mandate, said vaccination was not enough to stem the surge in cases right now.
"We understand that being up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccination is the best long-term way to slow transmission of COVID, ease the burden on our healthcare systems, and ensure our businesses, schools, and essential services have the employees necessary to function," the agency said.
"But vaccination rates are not increasing sufficiently to provide those benefits, and we need a more immediate, short-term intervention to protect our community, our hospitals, and our economy. Respirators are the best short-term intervention available to us, and it’s clear that requiring them countywide is the only way to ensure enough people are wearing them."
It's not the only bill introduced in the legislature to take aim at how Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have responded to the pandemic. House Bill 182, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, would limit the powers of mayors to enact emergency orders in a pandemic. It would also exempt state facilities from local health orders (as Governor Spencer Cox did when he exempted state facilities including Capitol Hill from the Salt Lake County mask mandate).
Rep. Wilcox declined to comment on the bill on Tuesday. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall blasted it.
"We are not surprised by HB 182 but urge the Legislature to promote good policy over politics when it comes to our residents’ health. This includes empowering local health departments to enact protective measures based on science and their expertise. The fact that HB 182 exempts state facilities from a science-based health order is exactly that type of reactive legislation that is so disappointing and a response to a toxic political climate," the mayor's office said in a statement.
"We are also not surprised the Legislature is attempting to usurp local mayors’ emergency authority related to pandemics, and know this is a direct statement on Mayor Mendenhall’s emergency COVID-19 declaration and mask order for Salt Lake City’s K-12 schools. Rather than stripping local authority, we request the Legislature acknowledge that municipal mayors have direct expertise related to any kind of emergency in their local communities, and those mayors’ authority should not be usurped for political retribution."