SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah, Aug. 12, 2021 (Gephardt Daily) — The majority of the Salt Lake County Council has voted to overturn the health department’s K-6 mask mandate.
Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department announced Tuesday that students in Salt Lake County schools in grades K-6 would be required to wear masks at the start of the upcoming school year.
Dunn’s decision came as Utah witnesses a spike in COVID-19 cases, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, attributed to the highly-transmissible Delta variant, with 1,243 new cases and three new deaths documented Thursday.
Steve DeBry, chairman of the Salt Lake County Council posted a statement on social media Tuesday saying he would be calling a special meeting of the council Thursday at 2 p.m. so members could vote.
The vote was 6-3, along party lines; the Council is made up of three Democrats and six Republicans.
A man who attended the meeting, Travis Heggie, told Gephardt Daily: “I’ve got friends who live in this county who have been very involved in this issue, two of them are children and they feel very unhealthy when they wear masks and want to have a sense of normalcy back to them when they go back to school.”
Numerous Council members posted on social media both before and after the vote.
Aimee Winder-Newton wrote a lengthy statement just after the vote on Facebook, which reads in part:
“I cannot, in good conscience, tell a parent that government knows better than they do for their child, especially when the COVID risk to young children is low. Parents have instinct, intuition, and inspiration when it comes to what is best for their children. We know some children are suffering from delayed cognitive development, mental health challenges, and other issues because of masks. And yet we also know masks help diminish the spread of the disease.
“Each child is unique and has different challenges. There should not be a one-size-fits-all for our kids. I believe the right solution is to allow parents to decide what is best for their child. I will be voting to overturn the mask mandate, but I still highly recommend masks for those who can.”
Council member Richard Snelgrove said in a statement early Thursday morning: “I agree that the decision to wear or not wear a mask should be left to caring and loving parents who are best equipped to make the proper decision for their children’s physical, psychological and emotional health. I cannot and should not second guess a parent’s judgment.
“Therefore, in what I believe is the best interest of our children’s well being, I will vote to overturn the mask mandate.”
Council members Dave Alvord said as part of a lengthy statement on Facebook before the vote: “I understand that the Delta variant is still a bit unknown, but I feel even stronger in my position that we shouldn’t place so much stock in masks. I don’t think kids wear them correctly, and the virus has the whole lunch hour and recess periods to spread unabated. Not to mention that many kid’s masks get downright nasty due to using the same one for six weeks straight.”
The local countywide health order was endorsed by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, and by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, but had to pass muster before the Salt Lake County Council, recently empowered by the Utah State Legislature to block any such local health mandates at their discretion.
The Legislature still holds the power to overturn the Council’s decision.
That authority, created by SB-195, the so-called “end game bill” was passed during a special session of the Legislature and greatly restricts the independent ability of local health authorities to issue emergency orders like mask restrictions. Before a mandate can be enacted health department officials must now give 24-hour notice of their intention to the Council.
Wilson said: “Today was not the County Council Republicans’ finest hour. Against the recommendation of medical experts, and those working diligently to control the spread of COVID-19, they chose to overturn a well-thought-out health policy moved by Salt Lake County Health Department Director Dr. Angela Dunn.
“Salt Lake County invests in and trusts its experts. Unfortunately, the guidance provided by Dr. Dunn was overturned by those swept up in emotion and unproven theories instead of believing well-founded medical data surrounding COVID-19.
“Going into the school year next week, my greatest hope is that parents will recognize the severe risk COVID-19 presents and choose to send their children to school in masks. Regardless, I want our kids to enter the school year with minimal conflict and disruption. It’s up to the adults to make that happen.”
Dunn said in her statement: “I thank the Salt Lake County Council for their quick decision so Salt Lake County parents, students, and educators have clarity. Though this is not the result I had hoped for, I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively with the council and other stakeholders to address the COVID pandemic.
“The science is clear: vaccination is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19; if you are not vaccinated, wearing a mask is safe and the second-best way to protect yourself and those around you. I chose to issue a mask order because the Delta variant is a serious threat to children and our current transmission rates require a strong intervention — one proven effective last school year. Though the order will not stand, I’m optimistic that issuing it clearly signaled my level of concern as a medical professional, and that it will help more parents choose to send their children to school in masks.
“I encourage parents and teachers to be good role models for children by following health recommendations to wear a mask when indoors in public, offering positive reinforcement to children, and helping ensure our community dialogue on this and related issues remains kind and respectful.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also tweeted after the vote: “By ignoring science and Dr. Dunn’s expertise, the County Council’s vote makes our community less safe and puts our children at risk. As a @slcschools parent I’m concerned for my kids and as Mayor I worry for every child walking into school on 8/24. #SLC is evaluating its options.”