Salt Lake County Council members to vote on overturning K-6 school mask mandate

Eufemia Didonato

Salt Lake County Council members are facing a barrage of last-minute lobbying over a school mask requirement, with Councilwoman Laurie Stringham reporting that several constituents showed up at her house.

“We have an average of six to seven emails coming in per minute,” the Republican official told The Salt Lake Tribune Wednesday. “… This is the most highly charged issue we have ever seen in Salt Lake County.”

As that pressure mounts, some council members expressed frustration that Dr. Angela Dunn publicly announced the mask order for K-6 students at the same time the council members were holding their formal meeting Tuesday, unaware the health director had made a decision on the matter.

“We were told we were working together on this,” Stringham said. “They didn’t have the courtesy to tell us what they were going to do.”

The council has scheduled a special meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday to decide whether to repeal Dunn’s order.

Though Dunn previously said she wouldn’t sign a mandate without the council’s backing, she told reporters Tuesday that she ultimately decided to move forward without that guarantee because members told her “they wanted to see a mask order in their hands” before deciding if they’d support it.

Dunn became head of the Salt Lake County Health Department after quitting as the state epidemiologist last spring. In issuing the order that took effect Wednesday, she said universal face coverings for public school students in kindergarten through sixth grade would protect children still too young to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Infectious disease experts in Utah have backed such mask mandates, as school reopenings around the nation have driven a surge in new infections and children’s hospitals are stretched thin while coping with the influx of patients. Concerned parents and high-risk families worried about their children bringing the virus home also have advocated for a mandate.

On the other side is a coordinated group of parents who contend that their children are sick of face coverings. And at least four council members said they’re not prepared to overrule these parents, between doubts about the efficacy of masks on children and the fact that only a small percentage of kids end up hospitalized with COVID-19.

“To protect these children, adults need to get the vaccination. They have to get shots in the arm,” Council Chair Steve DeBry, a Republican, said in an interview Wednesday. “Masks won’t get us out of this. Masks won’t cure the virus.

The council has authority to terminate the mandate thanks to a law recently approved by state legislators, who wanted to place a check on the powers exercised by unelected public health officials.

Under the bill passed this year, the council could veto Dunn’s public health order by a majority vote. And even if members upheld it, the state Legislature could overturn it.

Those undecided or opposed

As a teacher, Stringham said, she saw firsthand that masks, in combination with social distancing and online learning, made a difference during the pandemic last year and kept schools open. But she remains undecided about whether she’ll vote to repeal Dunn’s mask order and wants to also evaluate information about mental health and how to best accommodate children with special needs.

“We have people on both sides that think this a cut-and-dry, simple solution,” Stringham said. “One side says, ‘it’s so simple, just wear a mask.’ The other side says, ‘it’s so simple, let the parents decide.’ If it were that simple, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Stringham said she asked Dunn for additional public health data that she’ll review before Thursday’s vote.

“I don’t even know if I’m getting honest data from Angela Dunn if she’s playing politics like this,” Stringham said.

Republican Councilwoman Dea Theodore said she, too, felt blindsided by the mask mandate, which came even though Dunn stated at a work session last week that she wouldn’t issue restrictions the council wouldn’t support.

The health director also didn’t mention her impending order during her regular Tuesday coronavirus update to the council, Theodore noted.

“Government’s role is not to mandate compliance for the littlest among us … that is the role of parents,” she wrote in a Wednesday Facebook post. “Government can inform and assist but ultimately this decision should be left up to parents.”

Theodore said she is continuing to monitor the pandemic but will “emphatically oppose” a mask mandate right now. She also does not plan to make her own children wear masks, telling The Tribune that they are “eager to start the school year as normal.”

DeBry, the council chair, said he would also vote to repeal the mask order, but added that unlike Theodore and Stringham, he was not surprised the health director issued it.

“Dr. Angela Dunn has come to us for the past several months, weekly, with information, statistics, data and answered questions,” DeBry said. “We’ve always known that an order from her could be forthcoming at any time.”

DeBry added that he decided to oppose mask requirements because of all the variables.

“[There are] a million different kinds of masks, some are better than others,” DeBry said. “Are [kids] going to wear them? They take them off for lunch, they take them off for recess, they take them off to get a drink.”

The councilman said he had “lost sleep” over the decision, however, noting that he has elementary-age grandchildren. He implored county residents to treat each other civilly.

“Be kind. Be respectful to one another,” DeBry said. “We all live in a village. We’re all in this together and we want to get out of this pandemic.”

Republican Councilman David Alvord, who previously worked as a dentist, said via text message Wednesday that he was “struggling” with the decision to repeal the mask requirement.

“It’s one of [those] with an equal list of pros and cons,” Alvord said. “I am likely going to leave it up to parents and thereby oppose the mandate.”

The council member did not respond to a question about whether he would send his own children to school with masks.

Explaining her opposition to the mandate, Republican Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton pointed to Salt Lake County health data showing that 58 children under the age of 12 have been hospitalized for COVID-19, one has died and 27 are suffering long-term complications.

“Since the risk of COVID complications for kids under 12 is so low,” she predicted that a majority of her colleagues would join her in overturning the mask mandate Thursday.

A possible compromise?

However, Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health, noted that this data reflects the county’s experience under a previous variant of COVID-19 and that the current delta strain is much more contagious than the version that was spreading through schools last year.

“There is tremendous misconception about the danger that kids face,” he said. “Delta has really changed the ballgame.”

Two Democratic council members — Arlyn Bradshaw and Jim Bradley — confirmed that they would vote to uphold Dunn’s mask mandate on Thursday. But Bradley said he suspects they’ll be in the minority.

In a last-ditch attempt to preserve the order, he said, he might try to convince his colleagues to leave it alone for now and revisit it after a month to see how it’s working.

“It might be a nice compromise,” he said.

To Bradley, the reports of overwhelmed hospitals and spiking case counts make a compelling case for requiring children younger than 12 to wear face coverings as they crowd back into classrooms. Dunn has warned council members that if they don’t take preventive measures, the county could see three or four children each week hospitalized with COVID-19.

Council members Richard Snelgrove, a Republican, and Ann Granato, a Democrat, did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday. Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, declined to comment ahead of the council’s vote Thursday.

The Utah Education Association, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Utah House Democrats have all implored council members to let the mask mandate stand.

“We must do everything we can to avoid the circumstances of other states where hospital beds are filling with sick children,” Democratic state lawmakers said in a Wednesday statement. “There is no way to rationalize putting any child at risk of serious illness, hospitalization, intubation, MIS-C, or long-term COVID over the temporary inconvenience of wearing a cloth mask indoors.”

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