Utah lawmakers weigh overturning local mask mandates

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The GOP-dominated Utah Senate passed a measure Tuesday to block local mask mandates as the omicron variant of the coronavirus fuels a punishing coronavirus surge.

The resolution was introduced on the first day that lawmakers began their work for the year. It would overturn requirements in Salt Lake and Summit counties to wear masks indoors, preferably N95 or KN95 masks that are more effective against the variant. The measure must still pass the state House.

The monthlong mandate passed with support from some Republican council members who despaired at the disruptions to health care workers, firefighters and schools caused by the highly contagious variant. Fueled by the contagious omicron variant, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah is higher than than at any point since the pandemic began, shows data from the CDC. That mirrors a national trend.

The case counts and deaths from COVID have also been on the rise. “As a Republican, I want people to know that not all Republicans believe this is the right call,” County Councilmember Aimee Winder Newton said. “I think you use those mask mandates in a very limited way at very specific times when they’re needed, and I think this is one.”

But state lawmakers say there’s no appetite for mandates. GOP Sen. Dan McCay of Riverton, the resolution’s sponsor, said his 7-year-old daughter cried at the thought of wearing a mask again.

“That constituent, and that impression, was poignant enough for me to be willing to step up and end the mask mandate,” he told reporters.

A law passed last year allows the state Legislature to overturn local health mandates.

“If we don’t act, we are complicit in either accepting or rejecting it,” said Senate president Stuart Adams, who had just completed a five-day quarantine period himself after testing positive for COVID.

McCay also questioned the efficacy of masks against the highly contagious omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended N95, KN95 or similar masks. Few Republican lawmakers wore face coverings at the state Capitol. It is located in Salt Lake County but GOP Gov. Spencer Cox quickly exempted them from the mandate.

Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla of Salt Lake City said state lawmakers should leave the mandates passed by local leaders in place.

“My constituents were begging for a mask mandate even before the mayor acted,” Escamilla said. “We really want to keep seeing that mask mandate in place.”

The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.