Salt Lake City’s action on mask mandate is the right move and reflects Utah’s values: Local expertise

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall smiles under her mask as she walks to the podium for a press conference with members of the City Council and local business owners at the City-County Building on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Mendenhall announced she is using her office’s emergency powers to keep a mask mandate in place after the statewide requirement that face coverings be worn in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19 ends April 10. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Last spring, as Utah grappled with how best to confront the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, then-Gov. Gary Herbert and health officials decided on a localized approach to target troublespots. Most of the state was moved to a yellow, or low-risk level. Salt Lake City, Mexican Hat and Bluff, however, remained in orange, or moderate-risk level, based on current risk assessments.

Much has happened since then, including a fall and winter surge in cases, but the localized approach remains a good way to fight the virus, especially as the state removes a statewide mask mandate, as will happen Saturday.

Salt Lake Mayor Erin Mendenhall is right to be worried about the health of people in her city, which not only is the most densely populated city in the state but which is a center of commerce. She has issued an order to continue a mask mandate in the city. That is the responsible thing to do, and we support the decision.

The portion of a newly signed state law that ends the mandate was based on no data at all. It was passed more than a month ago, when no one knew what current conditions would be. It allows counties, which have their own health departments, to continue mask mandates if desired. But both the bill’s sponsor and House Speaker Brad Wilson say cities do not have that right.

Mendenhall and city attorneys disagree, believing she has legal authority to issue an emergency order to protect the health of her constituents. It appears the state is not interested in challenging Mendenhall, and that is a good thing, particularly since it is consistent with how the state approached the pandemic in the first place — local expertise.

What Utah needs right now is cooperation between state and local leaders to ensure the true endgame for this pandemic plays out quickly and successfully.

Utahns historically have valued the importance of decisions made by governments closest to the people. As mayor, Mendenhall is accountable to city residents, and that includes those in vulnerable areas who have not been vaccinated at the same rate as others in the state.

Mendenhall told KSL Wednesday that only 23% to 25% of residents on the city’s west side have received a first dose of vaccine, compared to about half the residents of east-side neighborhoods. Governments should be especially sensitive to equity in low-income neighborhoods, especially where health issues are concerned.

Mendenhall said the city’s mask mandate will end when the numbers improve, and when the state has reached 1.63 million first doses of vaccine, a benchmark the Legislature set for removing all pandemic-related restrictions. At a news conference Wednesday, Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steve DeBry said people are tired of wearing masks. That should not be a criteria for ending something that clearly has been effective in protecting the public from a virus that has not disappeared. Nor is it necessarily true.

A March poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 36% of Utahns say they would consider continuing to wear masks even after the pandemic ends, and 71% expressed support for businesses continuing to require masks after Saturday.

Several business owners stood with Mendenhall on Wednesday to address their concerns about employees potentially facing angry or belligerent customers who don’t want to wear masks on the premises, despite company policies. A city mask mandate gives them cover for such requirements. There is also the risk of a surge, such as the one underway in Europe, that could bring business closures. No one wants that.

We urge state and local officials, at all levels, to continue working together in a spirit of cooperation to end this pandemic. A little more than 1 million Utahns, or 44% of the state, have received at least one dose of vaccine. That isn’t enough to end mask-wearing in those places at greatest risk.

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