Controversial mask mandate in response to Omicron surge

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The Utah Department of Health reported a record-breaking count of 12,990 COVID-19 cases in a single day on Thursday. In response to the highly infectious Omicron variant, Salt Lake County has issued an indoor mask order Jan. 8 through Feb. 7.  

The order applies to all Salt Lake County residents and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, including children over two years old. The county recommends KN-95 respirators be worn rather than cloth or surgical masks. The mask order is in place until Feb. 7, unless it is extended or terminated by local public health officials. 

Pushback from the public, and some city council members, was voiced at a Salt Lake City council meeting on Jan. 11. “More than 60 people, not all of them Salt Lake County residents, showed up at the council’s regular Tuesday meeting to express their disdain for the mandate,” according to Leia Larson’s reporting for the Salt Lake Tribune. City council member David Alvord voiced his opposition to the mask mandate by requesting an emergency amendment to the meeting agenda. 

On Thursday an emergency meeting was held for city council members to vote on the mask mandate, which was upheld with a 5-4 vote. The tie-breaking vote came down to chair member Laurie Stringham, who first expressed opposition to the mandate. 

“Do I think a mask mandate is the best way to do this? Hell no,” said Stringham. Members of the public who were in attendance exclaimed in support, but Stringham quieted them and continued her statement. She then noted she had scheduled a meeting for Monday with state leaders to come up with a different plan, but until then voted to uphold the mandate. Footage of the meeting can be found on the KUTV 2News Facebook Page. 

Even though COVID cases are at a record high, by law, Utah Valley University cannot issue a mask mandate. House Bill 1007, signed into law by Gov. Cox in May of 2021, prevents “an institution of higher education from requiring a face covering to participate in or attend instruction, activities, or in any other place on the campus of the institution after the end of the spring semester in 2021.” 

However, this bill does not restrict the actions of state or local health departments. Unless a mask order is issued by the Utah County or Utah Department of Health, UVU and any other public institution of higher education in the state can not enforce a mask mandate. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of KN-95 respirators, full vaccination status and a booster shot as the most effective protection against the Omicron variant. UVU offers free COVID-19 testing and vaccinations on campus for students, faculty and staff. 

UVU’s COVID-19 policy and resources can be found here