The Utah Legislature’s pandemic “endgame” bill lifts the statewide mask mandate on April 10. Counties have some leeway to enact their own pandemic policies — but only if the entire state falls short of three thresholds.
Once the entire state has a 14-day COVID-19 caseload of less than 191 per 100,000 people, coronavirus patients occupy less than 15% of intensive care unit beds, and the state obtains 1.63 million doses of vaccine — regardless of whether they’ve be shot into arms — any pandemic-related public health order goes away, including local mask-wearing requirements.
Until the caseload, ICU bed and vaccination thresholds are met, the state will continue to have a limited mask mandate for groups larger than 50 when they can’t distance themselves from others.
“Your group of friends can be together without a mask, as long as you can social distance from another group,” said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the bill’s sponsor. “But in the Jazz arena, that’s not going to happen.”
Come July, regardless of whether those statewide thresholds have been met or virus variants cause infections to rise again, any pandemic public health order must come to an end.
“If we get to July 1 and we’re seeing a surge, I guarantee,” Ray said, “the Legislature will come back in special session and handle it.”
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson enacted the first mask mandate in Utah as cases began escalating last summer, which she credits for a subsequent decline in infections.
But at a County Council meeting last week, the mayor implied HB294 gutted the county’s ability to enact another mandate moving forward.
“We’re S.O.L., in my opinion,” Wilson said.
Utah is already close to meeting the three thresholds in the bill. The state is currently at 239 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, and caseloads have seen a downward trend since January. People sick with COVID-19 occupy 12% of ICU beds. More than 1 million vaccine have already been administered in the state.
“Probably as soon as around [April 10], or the end of April, if we stay on track with the declining rates” of infection, the thresholds will be met, Wilson said. “I have very serious concerns about the passage of this bill.”
Wilson told council members a primary worry is children, who have not been approved for vaccination if they’re under 16.
Last week, Utah reported its first death of a child from COVID-19.
The mayor’s office has declined to further discuss HB294 with The Salt Lake Tribune to date.
“We are focused on getting as many shots in arms as possible,” a spokesperson said last week.
At a public meeting Tuesday, Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Gary Edwards told the council that if the state’s current trend of declining cases continues, it will likely meet HB294′s thresholds in three weeks.
Asked by council members whether the state’s relaxing of the mask mandate and other pandemic orders was premature, Edwards said he’d like to see the legislation better tied to public health metrics.
“I am concerned, we have an April 10 date that is an arbitrary date. It’s not based on any kind of metric,” Edwards said. “We have to remember this is still a novel virus. We are [still] learning about it. The vaccine is brand-new.”
In an interview, County Council Chair Steve DeBry said he’s still reviewing the bill. Republicans like DeBry currently hold a veto-proof majority on the council. Come April 10, if the statewide thresholds are not met, any mask mandate extension would need to be approved by them.
“I would let the science drive the facts of the matter,” DeBry said, adding that he did not speak on behalf of other council members. “If things are still looking good, still dropping, everything looks great, I’d go from there. That wouldn’t stop me personally from wearing a mask.”
Republican council member Aimee Winder Newton said it’s too early to say whether the county needs a mask mandate extension after April 10.
“I tend to err on the side of, if people are fully vaccinated, they don’t need to wear masks,” she said.
Still, Newton urged county residents to be respectful of businesses that enact their own mask requirements and of individuals who continue to wear one.
“It’s going to be interesting to see the reaction in the business community,” Newton said, “but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to look into how we ease out of this mask restriction.”