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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox has now told state workers they are exempt from new mask mandates for Salt Lake and Summit counties — a move that Salt Lake County's mayor says disregards the health of the community.
Cox told all state departments in an email obtained by KSL.com that neither employees nor visitors will need to wear masks in state-owned buildings "given the possibility that other counties may follow suit," said Tracy Gruber, executive director of the Department of Human Services, and Nate Checketts, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, in the joint email.
Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson expressed frustration at Cox's move.
"While I appreciate the governor's authority on many levels, he does not have the authority to exempt state buildings and employees from the Salt Lake County mask requirement and is defying a public health order of constraint," Wilson said in a statement.
"With omicron cases threatening our community, not only is this a blatant disregard for the law by our state's chief elected officer, but a disregard for the health of our community and local authority. I would expect the governor to set an example for us all by following the law during this challenging time," she said.
Wilson noted that SB195 last year — meant to put the power to create health orders in the hands of local government — created the process for local health departments to implement health "orders of constraint."
"Those orders can be terminated by the local chief executive officer within 72 hours of issuance, or they can be overridden by the local legislative body at any time. The legislation does not allow for the governor to disregard the local health order," Wilson added.
The announcement by Cox came on a day when the Utah Department of Health reported that there were 9,367 new COVID-19 cases in the state on Friday, 8,663 new cases on Saturday, and another 6,413 reported on Sunday. Before Friday, there were three days in a row where the state's new case count broke pandemic records. Another 20 COVID-19 deaths were also reported since Friday.
The Republican governor responded to Wilson on Monday afternoon in a statement where he said that he supports Wilson as a representative for Salt Lake County, citing current state law that allows counties to issue health orders for individual counties. He went on to say that he encourages people in counties where mask mandates have been issued, to comply with the health order.
"Counties do not have the authority to bind the state and, as such, a county order does not apply to state buildings," Cox said in a statement. "We stand by our earlier guidance to state employees to encourage but not require masks in state facilities, and we continue to urge all Utahns to be vaccinated and boosted."
The governor's email said exceptions to his exemptions include "state-operated 24/7 congregate care facilities that have existing mask requirements, the UDOH health clinic, and UDOH on-site structures for COVID-19 testing." It added that "the best tool against COVID-19 continues to be vaccinations and boosters."
The health department leaders emphasized that they "continue to support voluntary mask wearing, getting tested and staying home when sick. High-quality masks were delivered to all UDOH/DHS buildings last week. If you would like a mask, please ask your building's administrative support or employee support contact," Gruber and Checketts added.
Those who are sick and choose not to be tested should stay home for five days after their symptoms start and after they are symptom-free, according to the email.
Republican Senate President Stuart Adams issued a statement against the mandates, calling on Utahns to deal with COVID-19 "rationally."
"I support individuals' right to wear or not wear a mask," Adams said. "However, we need to deal with COVID calmly, rationally and review and apply what we have learned over the past 22 months. We should take a balanced approach of saving lives, livelihoods and kids' education while preserving personal liberties. We need to continue informing and providing Utahns with as many resources as possible, including making testing, vaccines/boosters and therapeutics readily available.
"After almost two years into the pandemic, I have full confidence in Utahns' ability to use good judgment to make personal choices without interference from the government," Adams said.
Salt Lake County Council won't take a vote
The Salt Lake County Council will not take a vote to overturn the mask mandate ordered Friday by Dr. Angela Dunn.
"Instead of looking out for our fellow man, we have made this so incredibly political, divisive and uncivil. The ability to plan, discuss and work together no longer exists. Any one of these challenges, we, as an intelligent and creative society, could solve," Councilwoman Laurie Stringham, chairwoman of the County Council, said in a news release late Sunday.
"But it has become clear that, if we are to solve problems without turning to government mandates, leadership will need to step up and be willing to work together. I am certain there were better ways we could get these higher quality masks out into the hands of the people, however this is the only tool currently available," she added.
Stringham said she will not call for a special session of the council to consider the temporary health order. That means it will remain in place without a vote from the council. The order issued by Dunn, Salt Lake County Health Department executive director, started on Saturday and will remain in effect until Feb. 7.
The order urges people to use respirators, like KN95 masks, over cloth masks. But cloth masks are acceptable as a backup if they are unable to get a respirator. Dunn tweeted Saturday that people should not use surgical N95s so those types can be saved for health care workers.
Dunn announced the order after Utah, for three consecutive days, reported record daily COVID-19 case counts and hospitals continued to plea for help containing the virus. On Friday, the state confirmed 9,469 new coronavirus cases — an increase of nearly 5,000 from the state's record daily case count before the omicron variant hit.
The councilwoman pointed to COVID-19 testing lines "hours and miles long," schools hitting the state's test-to-stay requirement, cities unable to fully staff fire stations, police officers working overtime, and health care workers facing staffing shortages.
"Many companies are already taking the precaution of sending employees home to work and putting back prior health protections for their employees," Stringham said.
The announcement comes after the Salt Lake County Republican Party thanked the Republican council members for "working to uphold their oaths of office."
"They are seeking a real solution that does not encroach on the liberties of the citizens, which the government exists to protect. Mandates are government overreach and result in economic disruption causing shortages of the very resources needed most in a crisis. Masks in schools exacerbate children's anxieties during an already stressful time in our history. We need more elected officials to take the time to guarantee our rights while working to solve real issues as these council members are working to do," the party said in a statement.
Stringham said she spent time since the health order was issued Friday "doing a full due diligence to understand and research the circumstances we are facing due to the omicron variant of COVID-19."
"Salt Lake County realizes the need to step up and offer to the public a better solution for protection," she said, noting that the county has delivered N95 and KN95 masks to senior centers and library branches for those without the financial means to purchase them.
"N95 and KN95 masks are a proven protection from the virus. I call upon the state of Utah, Utah school districts, the Salt Lake County Mayor's Office and health department to get these masks out of warehouse storage and into the hands of residents," Stringham said.
She pointed to the exemptions to the mask mandate for students who need them: those who can't put them on or remove them without assistance; a medical condition, mental health condition or intellectual or developmental disability; and students who have an individualized education program that allows for a mask exemption. A doctor's note is not needed for those exemptions, Stringham said.
"Finally, I call on the public, government and political leaders, schools, businesses, really everyone, to be tolerant. Not everyone will comply, we expect that. We are working overtime to get higher quality protection out to the public as quickly as we can. It isn't worth a fight or angry exchange to try and enforce compliance on someone else. Take care to properly protect yourself and your immediate family and allow others to do the same. Together we can make it through the omicron spike and keep moving forward to immunity and hopefully leave the pandemic behind," Stringham said.
Contributing: Arianne Brown