Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — After over three hours of fiery public comments from those angered by Salt Lake County's mask order amid Utah's COVID-19 surge, the County Council will vote after all on whether to overturn the mandate.
Salt Lake County Councilman Dave Alvord on Tuesday successfully pressed the GOP-controlled council to take a vote, first attempting to amend the agenda to hold an emergency vote on the issue that evening. When that failed without the support of Republican members Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham and Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, he tried again by proposing a special meeting. That motion passed with Stringham's support.
The Salt Lake County Council is scheduled to convene that special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m. The resolution that will be considered would "terminate" the 30-day mask order that Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, issued last Friday.
Stringham will likely be the crucial vote Thursday on whether to uphold the mask mandate. Winder Newton, who told Dunn she'd support a countywide mask mandate, held firm, voting consistently against Alvord's motions. But Stringham's decision to break from Winder Newton and allow a special meeting opened the door for an expedited vote. She audibly sighed as she voted in favor of the special meeting.
However, Stringham on Wednesday said she's likely not to vote to overturn the mandate.
"If I for some reason found some magic cure between now and then, I would love to have that," Stringham told KSL NewsRadio in an interview. "But, you know, I think at this point as it stands, I think it's just going to stand."
Stringham, who attended Tuesday's council meeting in person, wore a mask, having contracted COVID-19 just last week. Stringham's aide, Abby Evans, told the Deseret News that Stringham started having symptoms last Wednesday, "so we're past the five days recommended by the CDC" to self-isolate.
Those recently updated guidelines call for people with COVID-19 to isolate for five days, and "if they were asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving (without fever for 24 hours), follow that five days of wearing a mask when around others to minimize the risk of infecting people they encounter."
"Symptoms are improved since the weekend, but she felt the need to be here today," Evans said.
One empty seat separated Stringham and Alvord, who did not wear a mask.
Anti-mask protesters came from in and beyond Salt Lake County
Also unmasked were over 60 people who crowded in the council's chambers, some carrying signs to protest the countywide mask order. County officials did not enforce the mask mandate, allowing people to stay despite not wearing masks.
Some attendees were not residents of Salt Lake County.
"This is absolutely ridiculous," one woman who identified herself as Heather from Weber County, shouted at the council. "You guys have your teeth sinking in our bodies. It is our freedom. It is none of your business what I put on my face. I have the right to breathe. God gave me oxygen. Do not take it from me."
Several times Stringham told the crowd to prioritize commenters who lived in the county they actually represent.
"This is not about our health anymore," said Bernadette Brockman, of Taylorsville. "This is about absolute total control. We are losing our freedoms minute by minute with every mandate ... The longer we comply the more freedoms we lose."
While arguing mask mandates tread on personal freedoms, the anti-mask protesters also inaccurately claimed masks don't help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and expressed frustrations about their children being required to wear masks at school. Many accused teachers of "bullying" their kids for not wearing masks.
One man who said he's from Murray and South Jordan told the council his daughter, who he said was previously a "very confident" girl, lost her confidence when she started to get acne from the mask. "Then when the mandate was gone she preferred to wear the mask rather than be made fun of."
"We had just gotten her to the point where she's starting to gain the confidence to take off said mask, and now another mask mandate," he said. "This directly affects the mental health of many people."
Other speakers personally attacked Dunn, accusing her of "gaslighting" residents about the realities of COVID-19 and hospital capacities. One man called her "Dr. Dumb." Another man called her "Utah's version of Anthony Fauci."
The case for the mask mandate
People who supported the county's mask mandate largely participated in the council's meeting remotely, many citing a fear of attending a "super spreader" meeting. But one man, Alejandro Puy, a recently elected Salt Lake City councilman who represents the city's west-side neighborhoods, showed up to the meeting in person, wearing a mask.
Puy said his district, an area home to communities of color, are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 with low vaccination rates, high coronavirus rates and high mortality rates. He told the council "my community needs your courage to stand by this decision," and he urged them to listen to health experts.
"Angela Dunn has dedicated her life, and many many other experts in our health department — hundreds of them — have dedicated their lives to study public health. Let's let them decide what is right (for) public health," Puy said.
Online commenters who supported the mask order urged the council not to overturn it.
"We wear these masks to protect each other," said Gretchen Fuller, of Midvale. "It's for a short period of time while our health care system is overloaded and overwhelmed and a lot of people are getting sick and dying. Yes, not everyone dies, but I don't want to have the responsibility on my head of a loved one dying because I spread COVID."
Another woman, Whitney Norton, of Millcreek, said she supported the mask mandate as someone with two families who are at high risk if they were to catch COVID-19.
"I fear for their safety and their health," she said. "We need the support of our community in order to keep them well."
Utah, Salt Lake County has 'maxed out' testing ability, Dunn says
Before the passionate public comment period, Dunn updated the council on Utah's grim COVID-19 case surge. Just from last week, the county had a spike of 11,926 cases to 17,943, up from 6,017. Drilling down on the cases making up that surge, Dunn said 83% of the county's cases are "not up to date" with vaccines.
"Even though we are experiencing increasing breakthrough cases with omicron, the vast majority of our cases continue to be not vaccinated or not up to date," Dunn said.
Statewide, 96% of Utah's intensive care unit beds were occupied as of Tuesday, Dunn said, with 35% of them COVID-19 patients.
Meanwhile, Dunn warned the state of Utah and Salt Lake County have "maxed out our ability" to identify COVID-19 cases over the last couple of days. Statewide, about 41,000 individuals have been getting tested every day, translating to between 8,000 and 9,000 individuals getting tested in Salt Lake County daily.
"So as we start seeing a potential plateau in our cases, that's not due to spread. That's due to the limited ability to test because we are turning away people from our testing sites," Dunn said. "So even more of a reason to be focused on hospitalizations moving forward as we're unable to test people and understand everybody who is positive."
Republican Salt Lake County Council members clash with Dunn
Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove questioned Dunn on how quickly the omicron surge is predicted to pass in Utah. Dunn pointed to New York City, as one of the first areas in the nation to see a "huge omicron surge, and they are just now starting to see a decline."
"We are about four weeks behind them, so we have probably another three to four weeks of climbing before we start to see a decline," she said, noting in other countries, the surge has lasted about six weeks.
"So we certainly have not peaked in our spread. We are definitely just at the beginning here," Dunn said.
Alvord also questioned Dunn on the details of her mask order, at times verbally wrestling with her over whether the order is based on science. He pointed specifically to private businesses that aren't open to the public but employ "thousands of people" and whether they're required to wear masks, as well as whether masks are effective if people are allowed to take them off while eating in settings like professional sports games.
"You can see that there's a lot of inconsistencies in this order," Alvord told the council.
"That's not true," Dunn interjected.
Dunn defended the order, saying there are "compromises all over the place" in drafting health orders. "That's the way these things work." She said if people do their best to wear masks when and where they can, that's still more protection than not wearing a mask at all.
Alvord disagreed, calling the health order "not very well crafted or thought through," and promised he'd make a motion to overturn it later Tuesday afternoon.
"I agree there's no silver bullet, masking isn't going to all of a sudden drop our cases," Dunn said. "However, layered approaches matter. And every opportunity we have to stop a hospitalization or death with minimal intervention is something we should be doing as public servants and definitely what I should be doing as a health officer."
Contributing: Lindsay Aerts