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Salt Lake City School District Stuck In Legal Gray Area Over Mayor's Mask Mandate

A photo of two students walking in Glendale Middle School.
Jon Reed
Nearly all students at Glendale Middle School were wearing masks on the first day of school last week.

The Salt Lake City School District is in a difficult situation.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenall recently declared a state of emergency due to rising COVID-19 cases and limited hospital capacity.

The order requires K-12 students to wear face masks. It’s in defiance of a state law that prohibits schools from issuing mask mandates without the approval of the county health department and county officials.

While Salt Lake County Health Director Angela Dunn recommended schools require masks, the county council disagreed. That’s when Mendenhall stepped in.

“The question is which law trumps which law?” said district spokesperson Jason Olsen. “That's something we're working through. We don't have that definitive answer.”

Olsen said because of that legal gray area, the district sent out a memo to principals saying for students who aren’t wearing a mask, ask them to put one on, explain the benefits of wearing a mask and provide one. But if someone flat out refuses, don’t discipline them.

The mayor’s emergency order only lasts 30 days and includes exemptions under certain circumstances. It also said that while the intention of the order is not to hold people criminally liable, people who do not comply could be found guilty of a Class B misdemeanor and punished with a fine and jail time.

Attorneys for the mayor argue she is within her authority to issue a mandate given the current COVID surge.

“Schools are subject to city laws,” the mayor’s spokesperson Lindsey Nikola told KUER. “This mask requirement is just like an anti-littering city ordinance or a city ordinance prohibiting idling. All could be enforced on school grounds. Enforcement of this ordinance is a separate issue, and no one is expecting a school to be heavy-handed.”

Several state lawmakers have taken issue with the order, such as Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who wrote in a Facebook post that Mendenhall’s order was an overreach.

“There is no public safety threat, no disaster and no threat of a disaster to justify her order mandating masks in schools,” he said. “Her order is NOT enforceable,” adding there will be coming legislation that clarifies what constitutes an emergency and what powers are granted during an emergency, as well as ramifications for officials who abuse that power.

Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian think tank Libertas Institute, said he agrees a city mayor does not have the authority to issue a mask mandate. He said the district’s current approach is the right one.

“Seeing the political tea leaves being what they are, everyone knows the Legislature is going to step in and clarify this,” Boyack said. “And so politically and strategically, they're far smarter to give a nod perhaps to Mayor Mendenhall's order, but they don't have to comply and they certainly don't have to enforce. There's not going to be any legal repercussions for their failure to do so.”

Meanwhile, the state’s ban on mask mandates has other legal challenges in the works, including a lawsuit filed on behalf of several parents and an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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