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Politics & Government

Salt Lake County mask mandate will stay in place for now, but may be overturned next week

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When the Salt Lake County Council voted to overturn a mask mandate for schools in August, all of its Republicans were on board. In a meeting Thursday, Republican Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton jumped ship and voted to keep the current mandate.

The Salt Lake County Council voted Thursday to not overturn the health department's mask mandate.

The health order requires respirators, like KN95 masks, in indoor public spaces, though there are exemptions for children under two and people who are actively eating or drinking.

Under a law passed in 2021, county councils can overturn mask mandates, but they can’t modify them, the council's attorney told them during Thursday’s meeting.

That’s why Republican Councilwoman Laurie Stringham said she wasn’t voting to overturn the order yet. Stringham said she is really concerned about how high case counts are making it difficult for schools to stay open, for fire departments to be fully staffed and for restaurants to have enough workers to stay open.

But she said she doesn’t want to use this mandate to address those issues.

“What can we do outside of this? What is a better plan?” she said. “I have a meeting set up with our state leaders on Monday morning. We are going to see what we can come up with as a plan that will allow choice, that will allow us to be able to take care of all those other things too … and if we can come up with a plan, I will call another meeting and we will overturn this.”

When the county council voted to overturn a mask mandate for schools in August, all of its Republicans were on board. This time, Republican Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton jumped ship and voted to keep the mandate.

Winder Newton, who said she currently has COVID-19 and joined the meeting virtually, explained her vote was different this time because of the huge wave of cases.

“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.

Like Stringham, Winder Newton said she was concerned that worker shortages could lead to schools returning to virtual learning, empty store shelves, inadequate staffing for emergency responders and a strain on hospitals.

“It's time that we join together and work to get through the next few weeks,” she said. “I'm not a fan of government mandates, but we have to do something — anything — to slow down the spread.”

Winder Newton said even if masks were just incrementally successful in slowing the spread, that’s better than nothing.

“Our hospitals and our schools need workers and right now, this virus is hitting so fast and furious that we need to do all we can to slow it down,” she said.

The order, if it remains in place, expires Feb. 7.

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