Despite Salt Lake County mayor, council opposition, Cox stands by mask mandate exemption for Capitol

In this August 2021 file photo, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a COVID-19 news conference Aug. 31, 2021, in Salt Lake City, Utah | Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Gov. Spencer Cox exempted the Utah Capitol and other state facilities from a mask mandate on Monday as lawmakers prepared to begin meeting for the 2022 legislative session, the Salt Lake County mayor pushed back.

October 2018 file photo of Jenny Wilson, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 9, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, says Cox doesn’t have the authority to create exemptions from the 30-day order issued as the omicron variant powers a punishing surge of the coronavirus.

The Salt Lake County Council over Utah’s capital has a GOP majority and has previously overturned a mask mandate, but Republican council members have said the severity and disruption of the omicron wave means this rule will stay in place.

Cox stood by the guidance emailed by his office, which says masks are encouraged but not required in most state facilities. He said local governments rules don’t cover state buildings.

The GOP-dominated Utah Legislature, which put new restrictions on the use of mask mandates last year, could potentially overturn Salt Lake County’s mask mandate after it begins its annual session Jan. 18, the Deseret News reported.

County leaders have cited testing lines that are miles long, case increases among students and staffing issues at fire and police stations. Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham, a Republican, said Sunday she would not call for a special session to consider overturning the order.

The mandate requires N95 and KN95 or similar masks for a month in indoor spaces, including schools, marking the first mask mandate in many parts of the county since the school year started. Cloth masks are acceptable until a respirator can be obtained.

Those masks are a proven protection from the virus, and public health orders are the only tools currently available to get widespread use, Stringham said.

“Instead of looking out for our fellow man, we have made this so incredibly political, divisive and uncivil,” she said. The county has delivered N95 and KN95 masks to libraries and senior centers for county residents to pick up, and she called on the state to move more out of storage.

County health officials say education about the purpose of the order and supplying a mask to individuals in violation will be the primary method of enforcement.

There are exemptions in the order, and students don’t need a doctor’s note if they need exemptions for allowed reasons.

The order from the Salt Lake County Health Department came Friday, after days of record-setting case counts, and is in effect through Feb. 7.

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.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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