Utah House overturns Salt Lake, Summit county mask mandates, effective immediately

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, talks with Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, as Rep. Doug Owens, R-Millcreek, works behind them prior to the beginning of the fourth day of the
Utah legislative session Friday.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, talks with Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, as Rep. Doug Owens, R-Millcreek, works behind them prior to the beginning of the fourth day of the Utah legislative session Friday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah House voted 45-29 Friday morning to end the locally imposed COVID-19 mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties, solidifying a veto-proof joint resolution that doesn't need a signature from the governor to take effect.

Leading up to the vote, House Republican lawmakers argued mask mandates don't work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and they're doing more harm than good by dividing communities.

"Government cannot mandate kindness or compassion," said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, the House sponsor of the joint resolution, SJR3. "If we think we're going to mandate people caring, we're kidding ourselves."

She argued it's up to "families, churches and nongovernment entities" to "teach people how to love one another. That's how you create kindness and compassion, not through mandates."

The resolution also explicitly ends Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall's order to require masks in K-12 schools in Salt Lake City.

In a prepared statement issued after the vote, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson urged residents to continue wearing masks "in spite of the misguided actions of the Legislature today."

"We are at very high rates of COVID spread, and we are hopeful to have the omicron variant of the virus behind us soon," the county mayor said. "Health experts agree masks worn properly help contain the spread of COVID. Let's all help keep our teachers teaching, our students learning, our hospitals operating, and our residents healthy."

Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County health department, said protecting vulnerable community members and keeping businesses open "requires layering our various prevention tools; this includes being up to date on vaccine, staying home when ill, and wearing a respirator mask in public during this surge."

"We encourage Salt Lake County residents and visitors to do these things, regardless of whether or not a mandate is in place," Dunn said.

In Summit County, more than 100 Park City High School students walked out of their classes Thursday morning to protest legislative efforts to override their county's mask mandate, the Park Record reported.

"I don't want to choose between the health and safety of my family and coming to school," Chris Henry, a junior at Park City High School, said to the crowd. "People are going to die as a result of this bill."

Behind-the-scenes discussions

The House's vote comes after several days of the resolution sitting in limbo while waiting to be considered in the House.

But when the time came, the vote played out as predicted by House Speaker Brad Wilson.

Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News and KSL NewsRadio in an exclusive interview Friday morning he expected the House to vote to approve — without any changes — the joint resolution, SJR3, that was passed by the Senate on a 22-5 vote Tuesday. Since then, it's been on hold while House GOP lawmakers have been discussing what to do with it.

"We have more than enough (House) members that have asked for an opportunity to vote on this. And I believe that more than enough members will vote to overturn the Salt Lake County mask mandate through the resolution," Wilson said.

While there was broad agreement within the House GOP caucus against mandates, Wilson said lawmakers over the past several days have been working "quietly behind the scenes" with members of the Salt Lake County Council "to get an understanding as to the process that they have been using and where they were at."

"We do think it's important to allow local legislative bodies to manage these things as best as they can," Wilson said. "So we thought that there was a probability they might choose to do something. It appears that that's not the case based on conversations late yesterday. ... They're good people. They're just having a hard time getting on the same page."

Because the Salt Lake County Council wasn't expected to act, Wilson said, the House decided to step in Friday.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a key Republican vote to uphold the county mask mandate, tweeted a statement Friday saying she was "urged by state legislative leaders to change my vote," but she stood "firmly with small businesses, school teachers and health care workers as we've seen this recent surge take down our workforce and fill our hospitals."

"As a Republican, I honor local control as a principle of governance," she said. "It is disappointing that although our county followed the law, the state legislature still chose to intervene and dismiss the decision we made to protect our residents."

Shortly after Wilson's interview, House Republicans met in a caucus meeting before Friday morning's floor time to discuss the joint resolution, though they did not take a caucus position on it. There was not complete consensus among Republicans, with some voting with Democrats against it, but the majority prevailed.

The Utah Legislature's ability to overturn the local health orders stems from SB195, a law approved by the Utah Legislature last year that restricts executive and local powers to issue public health orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though Salt Lake County's was a 30-day temporary order that was upheld by the Republican-controlled Salt Lake County Council, lawmakers moved to override it while arguing mandates are more divisive than helpful.

House floor debate

"I understand that many people are afraid. I understand that people are looking for ways to try and combat this omicron surge," Pierucci said on the House floor Friday, adding even though "we all" want to end the pandemic, "doing something for the sake of doing something is not a good enough justification for a government mandate."

Pierucci argued data hasn't shown mask mandates help bring COVID-19 cases down. But they have caused "increased polarization," distrust and burnout from "pandemic restrictions," she said.

Pierucci emphasized that those who want to wear masks can still do so. She asked those who are being rude to people about masks, or rude to front-line health care workers, to "knock it off."

"We are better than this," Pierucci said.

Democrats put up a fight. Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, urged lawmakers to listen to local leaders and health officials and let their decisions stand.

"I believe that the elected officials and the health directors of Salt Lake and Summit County issued mask mandates, mask orders, because they believe that they would best serve the public health of Salt Lake County and Summit County," Briscoe said.

Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-West Jordan, said people whose livelihoods require interacting with the public depend on health measures to stay safe.

"They're asking and they're pleading for every opportunity to stay safe and stay healthy at work so they can pay their bills, feed their kids," she said. "Please consider what I've said before we rush into this. Our local council, our county council, did a really good job of listening to the people that they were elected to serve, and I hope that we will do the same."

But Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, pushed back, calling himself a "fierce advocate" for local control. He questioned the role of government to put in place a mask mandate in the first place.

"I do believe we have done a disservice throughout this country and sometimes in this state as we've approached the COVID pandemic in trying to find government solutions where there isn't a great place to use government to solve the problem," Teuscher said, calling mask mandates "counterproductive."

"If we continue to try to force people to make good decisions, we're going to get more backlash from people on those decisions," he said.

Teuscher added he believes there's less mask-wearing and vaccine use in the community due to mandates. He said he doesn't see "why there are unique circumstances" in Salt Lake and Summit counties for local control to be needed to solve the issue.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, questioned whether other lawmakers have lost loved ones from COVID-19. "I have," she said, partially due to others around them not taking certain precautions. That's why she said it's "personal" to her.

As long as she's been in the Legislature, Moss said she's heard "two words like a mantra" — local control. She said she's been criticized when she's run bills that would remove local control. She questioned why this effort is any different.

"This is a short-term mandate," she said. "Thirty days. I think we're halfway through it now. And yet we're voting on this divisive issue today ... the first week (of the session)."

After debate was cut short on the House floor, Pierucci had the last word before the vote.

"I know this causes us to balance competing principles," Pierucci said, "but at the end of the day I believe this is the best thing to do."

Soon after the bill passed the House, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, signed the resolution in front of reporters. He said the U.S. Supreme Court "probably got it right" on President Joe Biden's mask mandate.

"I think people want personal liberties," Adams said. "I think what I'm hearing from my constituency is they're tired of mandates."

Why Gov. Cox says this is a 'dumb fight to be having right now'

Minutes after the House vote, Gov. Spencer Cox took questions on KSL NewsRadio's "Let Me Speak to the Governor" segment. Asked about the passage of the resolution, Cox said he couldn't speak to "why the Legislature felt like they needed to weigh in when there's only a couple of weeks left" for the mandates.

Had it been allowed to stand, the temporary Salt Lake County mask mandate would have ended at 5 p.m. on Feb. 7. Summit County's would have expired at 5 p.m. on Feb. 21.

"I'm not going to speak for them. You know, it probably would have been fine and would have gone away after a couple of weeks anyway. But that's the decision they made," Cox said.

His next words took a frustrated tone.

"I'm just, I'm so done with these fights," he said. "It's a dumb fight to be having right now."

The votes in both the House and Senate was held under suspension of rules that typically require a public hearing, which enabled the resolution to sail through both bodies without a committee hearing. Because it's a joint resolution, it does not need the governor's signature to become law, and the governor does not have the power to veto it.

However, despite his frustration with the debate, the governor also pushed back on the idea that mask mandates are productive. "The question isn't do masks work. The question is do mask mandates work." He said there's "no evidence" on state or local levels that mask mandates work.

"That's where I think we have to be really honest with people and not give them a false sense of security," he said. He added that if people wear N95 masks "religiously" whenever they're around others "then you will be protected. And everybody should have that choice."

"There's also this crazy idea that if we don't have a mask mandate that means nobody can wear a mask, and that's just not true," Cox added.

Pressed on what kind of a message it sends to overturn a local government's decision to protect their communities, Cox said "that's a very good argument, and it's an argument that I appreciate."

"You know, I didn't have a say in peeling that back," he said. "I do respect local governments and their ability to make decisions."

But he added "there is a distinction" between local control in the context of the federal government compared to local governments. "There is a Constitutional distinction there," he said, noting that states are "sovereign authorities" and there are arguments that states "supersede the federal government."

"That is not true with cities and counties," he added. "They do not have the same type of constitutional protections that states have vis-à-vis the federal government. And so it's not the same argument, but it is an argument that conservatives do make all the time and one that I make all the time. And sometimes making that argument means that local governments are going to do some things that we disagree with. And we have to be OK with that. And I think there's certainly an argument for that in this case."

Contributing: Lindsay Aerts

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