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Salt Lake County Council declines to overturn mask mandate

Health care worker Jeni West gives a thumbs up as the Salt Lake County Council voted Thursday to keep a 30-day county mask mandate in place. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to overturn Salt Lake County's mask mandate failed during a Salt Lake County Council meeting on Thursday.

"I understand masks are highly politicized and no one likes to wear them. I know masking in schools is not ideal. I get that people bristle when government tells them what to do. But we've asked nicely, we have pleaded and begged, and we need your help," said Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican, before voting to uphold the mandate.

With the three Democrats on the council — as well as two Republicans — voting against overturning the order, it failed 5-4.

Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, ordered mask-wearing in public for 30 days on Friday, Jan. 7, as Utah and the county continued to break daily COVID-19 case records and hospital officials joined together to plead for help controlling the virus.

High case rates and record hospitalization numbers continued this week, as the state for the first time surpassed 10,000 new cases on Wednesday and confirmed a record 608 current hospitalizations due to COVID-19. On Thursday, Utah smashed its daily record yet again as health officials reported 12,990 new cases.

Winder Newton joined Thursday's meeting remotely and announced, "My family members have had COVID, and now it's my turn."

She said she appreciated hearing from numerous residents who have contacted her, and her decision not to overturn the temporary mandate is "based on data" as the virus "hits hard for a few weeks and then subsides."

Winder Newton said she's spoken with business owners, school districts and hospitals to understand what's happening to their workforce.

"Our community is in a crisis which we've never seen before. I know in my lifetime we've never had the threat of having such a large percentage of the population out of work at the same time because of an illness," she said.

"And our hospitals, do you think you're tired of the pandemic? Well, our health care workers have been in the thick of this for almost two years now. They've already been picking up extra shifts, longer days, and getting fewer breaks. They are exhausted, and they feel like their government leaders and the public have abandoned them," Winder Newton added.

In-party tension over mandate

Earlier this week, County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, a Republican, said she would not call for a vote to potentially overturn the mandate. But Republican Councilman Dave Alvord on Tuesday successfully pressed the GOP-controlled council to take a vote and Thursday's meeting was ultimately scheduled.

During Tuesday's council session, dozens of residents showed up in person to speak against the mask order — despite its exclusion from the meeting agenda. Some also spoke in support of masks as they joined the meeting virtually. Thursday's emergency meeting lasted under 30 minutes and did not include a public comment session.

Stringham — who became the deciding vote not to overturn the order — said she's looked at the issue "on multiple different levels" while speaking to many residents in Salt Lake County, which is "very divided" politically.

Echoing Winder Newton's remarks, Stringham questioned what the virus will do to schools and first responders, and how it will affect businesses.

She said she's "frustrated" the council can only uphold the order or overturn it.

"That is the formula we've been given, and that was given to us by the state Legislature," Stringham explained.

She noted that some state legislators — who begin meeting next week — are also looking to overturn Salt Lake County's order.

But Stringham said she sees the order as a way to get masks sitting in warehouses distributed around the community. That can't happen without a mask order, she said.

"No one is willing to take leadership in this position right now and determine what else we can do, and it's been frustrating because that's literally what I've been researching for the last week," Stringham said, becoming emotional.

"I do believe in choice, which is why we made sure there were exemptions for families, for schools," she said, adding that the order isn't being fully enforced as some at the meeting were unmasked.

She turned to Councilwoman Dea Theodore, also a Republican, and Alvord as she expressed frustration that she hasn't "had help" from her colleagues.

Neither Alvord or Theodore were wearing masks at the meeting. Alvord sat by Stringham, who said she has been sick.

"There are some very serious issues going on here right now," Stringham said. "And if I seem frustrated, I am."

She said she has a meeting set up with state leaders on Monday morning, during which they will "see what we can come up with as a plan" that will allow for individual choice.

"But until that happens and we have a plan, I will let this stand and we will call another meeting," Stringham said.

Alvord argued that his constituents want the mandate overturned.

"And so in this situation, I have a very well-informed base. I have a very well-informed constituency. … And I have to be honest, it hasn't been close. I've tallied emails, at my last count it's about 8-1 opposed to mandates," he said.

"So from my view, for my seat, for me to be representing my district … I have to vote to overturn the mandate, so I vote yes to this resolution," Alvord said, which was received with some cheers.

Soon after the meeting began, Theodore proposed to amend the public health order to turn it into an "advisory" instead. That proposal was met with cheers from a few people watching the meeting in person.

But a policy adviser for the council noted the body does not have the power to modify the order, only to overturn it under Utah law.

Theodore acknowledged that "this has been hard for all of us," and noted that some of the emails from constituents have been "aggressive."

She asked people to be respectful when communicating with elected officials. But she said most of the emails she's received from her constituents want to overturn the order.

"As I look at it, we've relied on science a lot. And my background is science, I believe in science, I love science, but it's become clear the science is skewed in some ways. And this is science versus reality," she said, adding that "people are still getting sick, people are still getting hospitalized" despite mask orders.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said the proposal failed 5-3 instead of 5-4.

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