A bill to bar public schools and universities from forcing students to wear masks sailed through the Utah House on Wednesday, over objections from Democrats and Republicans who said the measure infringes on local control over public health decisions.
“This bill is about returning our schools to normalcy,” said Rep. Val Peterson, who sponsored HB1007. “About giving some assurances to parents and to students alike that when they come back this fall, that they’ll return back to a normal situation.”
Under the legislation, public schools and universities in Utah would not be able to require masks inside classrooms or anywhere else on campus or mandate them as a condition for participation in any instruction or activities.
Peterson, R-Orem, noted that nothing in the bill would prevent people from wearing a face coverings if they wish and that the measure applies specifically to COVID-19 and not to other diseases. The proposal also leaves open the possibility for mask mandates in schools with coronavirus outbreaks — it’s just that the decision would be up to county leaders in consultation with local health officers, he said.
But by the time a school is experiencing an outbreak, it might be too late, argued Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost.
“The whole point of a mask is to prevent an outbreak,” she said. “Once you’ve already got it spread, it doesn’t really matter if you wear a mask.”
Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, also pointed out that students younger than 12 are still ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. While Peterson countered that these children are “our least vulnerable population,” she said kids with underlying conditions can still become seriously ill or even die from the disease.
Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, on oxygen after a severe bout with COVID-19, said she opposed the bill, but not because of the personal toll the disease has taken on her. Instead, she told colleagues, she is fundamentally against taking power away from local leaders to make decisions for their communities.
Many of her fellow Republican legislators present themselves as strong believers in upholding local control and railed against the governor last year for imposing a statewide mask mandate rather than leaving these requirements up to individual communities, she continued.
“I feel it’s very hypocritical for this body to tout local control or complain about the governor last year having a face mask mandate,” the North Salt Lake Republican said. “And now, we are turning around and requiring a state mandate to not allow masks without a huge process.”
She also voiced concern that the bill’s sponsors hadn’t gotten enough input from educators when crafting the proposal.
And Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, whose husband is a Morgan County School District board member, objected that the legislation effectively tells local education leaders that they’re “not qualified to speak to the needs of the kids in your schools that you’ve been elected to serve.”
Other Republicans argued that the legislation does protect local authority and simply alleviates confusion about which community leader is in charge of requiring masks during a coronavirus outbreak.
“This bill clarifies that it will not be imposed by the university president or the local school board,” Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said. “It will be imposed by the county government in consultation with the local health director.”
The bill passed the House by a 50-24 vote and will now head to the Senate for consideration.
This story will be updated.