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Utah lawmakers overturn county mask mandates

January 21, 2022 GMT
The Utah State Capitol is shown during the first day of the Utah Legislature 2022 general session on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The Utah State Capitol is shown during the first day of the Utah Legislature 2022 general session on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
The Utah State Capitol is shown during the first day of the Utah Legislature 2022 general session on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Conservative Utah lawmakers overturned mask mandates in two counties Friday as the omicron variant of the coronavirus fueled a punishing surge.

The GOP-dominated Utah House passed the resolution, which went into effect immediately because it was approved by the Senate on the first day that lawmakers began meeting for the year. It does not require a signature or veto from Republican Gov. Spencer Cox.

Supporters of the resolution railed against using mask mandates against the highly contagious variant, saying they are divisive and take away individual freedom.

“I understand many people want to bring about an end to this pandemic. We all do. That all said, doing something for the sake of doing something is this not a good enough justification for a government mandate,” said Republican sponsor Rep. Candice Pierucci of Riverton.

She also said cloth masks worn by many people are not considered as effective against omicron. Rules in Salt Lake and Summit County had called for higher-quality N95 or KN95 masks.

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The vote came without a public hearing and went against two local Republican Salt Lake County council members who said pandemic-fueled disruptions to health care workers, firefighters and schools made the month-long order necessary even though they don’t generally like mandates.

“It is disappointing that although our county followed the law, the state Legislature chose to intervene and dismiss the decision we made to protect our residents,” said Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican county council member who supported the mandate and said she had been asked by state legislative leaders to change her vote. A law passed last year allows the state Legislature to overturn local health mandates.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah is higher than at any point since the pandemic began, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

That mirrors a national trend. The case counts and deaths from COVID have also been on the rise. Utah had the 4th highest coronavirus infection diagnosis rate in the country Friday, according to data gathered by The Associated Press.

Salt Lake County mayor Jenny Wilson asked people to continue wearing masks even though it’s no longer required and said high-quality masks are available for free at public libraries.

The omicron variant spreads more easily than other coronavirus strains and has already become dominant in many countries.

It also more easily infects people 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. Vaccinations and booster shots still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.