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Utah Legislature ends mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties

A photo of a face mask on the ground in front of the Utah State Capitol.
David Fuchs
A lone mask rests on the street in front of the Utah State Capitol, Nov. 9, 2020.

Mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties are gone after the Utah Legislature voted mostly along party lines to overturn them. The House approved the resolution Friday after 20 minutes of impassioned debate with 12 Republicans who split from their party to vote against it. Since it is a joint resolution and not a bill, it immediately went into effect and does not need the governor’s signature — nor can he veto it.

Supporters of the move to overturn the mandates argued it’s not the role of the government to make personal health decisions. State lawmakers also questioned the efficacy of the requirements because public health experts say cloth masks are not very effective against the omicron variant. Experts, however, say they’re better than nothing.

“Overturning these governance mandates is returning the decision-making power back to the people, back to individuals,” said the resolution’s floor sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman. “The data supports removing these mandates, and the principle of individual freedom compels us to do so.”

Democrats said the Legislature should respect local control and this will limit people’s ability to keep themselves safe.

“As long as I've been here, I've heard two words — it's like a mantra — ‘local control,’” said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. “I've been educated or even reprimanded when I've had bills that tried to take away any power from saying this is a local control issue. What happened to that? I don't understand the contradiction now … Mask wearing works.”

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, pointed out that all other county health officers elected not to institute mandates.

“I don't see any reason in this case why there are unique circumstances in Salt Lake County or Summit County, where you would need local control to solve this issue,” Teuscher said.

Although only two counties had mask requirements, the Utah Association of Counties voted Thursday to oppose the bill, according to UAC member and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.

Early in the pandemic, Republicans pushed for local control of restrictions. Since then, Republican lawmakers have given themselves more and more power over those decisions.

They passed a law in 2021 that allows county councils and commissions to overturn public health restrictions, but it also gave the Legislature ultimate authority.

Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Kearns, argued the removal of the mandate would hurt working-class people the most.

“The people that don't have the opportunity to stay home and stay safe because they have to teach our kids and stock our grocery shelves and wait the tables at the restaurants that you sit on and build the roads that we drove to work on they're asking and they're pleading for every opportunity to stay safe and to stay healthy at work so that they can pay their bills and feed their kids,” Matthews said.

Pierucci also addressed the impact on front-line workers and said it placed too much of a burden on them to enforce it.

“It is not fair to ask the 16-year-old who works at Smith’s to enforce this,” she said. “That's not fair of the county to put it on them. And we are asking our frontline workers to jump into this incredibly divisive space. And it's not being enforced.”

Earlier: Utah Senate votes to overturn mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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