Most statewide public health rules about COVID-19 are lifted, now that the “endgame” goals defined by state lawmakers for the pandemic in Utah have been reached.
But the Utah Department of Health on Tuesday issued a new public health order, as the new law allowed, to continue requiring face masks in schools and routine testing of students involved in sports and other extracurricular activities.
The order covering schools now stands as the only instance where the state government is telling Utahns what to do — with the force of law, rather than as advice — to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said UDOH’s declaration also means the citywide mask order she issued in April — after the new law also eliminated the statewide mask mandate — is unenforceable.
State health officials announced Tuesday that the three criteria set by HB294, the so-called COVID-19 “endgame” bill, had been reached:
• A 14-day case rate of less than 191 infections per 100,000 people in Utah; the rate is now at 163.4.
• A seven-day average of COVID-19 patients accounting for under 15% of intensive care unit beds; the rate is now at 11.2%.
• And more than 1,633,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine be allocated to the state; there now have been 1,656,025 first doses allocated to Utah.
Rich Saunders, UDOH’s executive director, acknowledged in a letter to legislative leadership that HB294 has been controversial, but said, “today should give us all a reason to celebrate. No matter which side someone falls on, we can all be proud of the outcomes we have achieved so far.”
HB294 allowed UDOH to continue orders that affect K-12 schools. The new order issued Tuesday expires on the last day of the school year, or June 15, whichever comes first.
“It’s important not to give up the ground we have gained, especially in our schools,” said Saunders. “We’re asking teachers, administrators, parents, and students to please hang in there, and finish the year on a healthy note.”
HB294, which Gov. Spencer Cox signed after objecting to some of its provisions, also ended the statewide mask mandate on April 10.
When the statewide mask mandate was set to expire in April, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a proclamation declaring a citywide mask order for people in public settings.
Under HB294, such orders by county or multicounty health districts, if they were enacted, would also expire with the declaration that the three thresholds have been met.
Mendenhall said in a statement Tuesday that she is “now prohibited from enforcing Emergency Orders specifically related to COVID-19, including the mask requirement.”
Whether Mendenhall had the authority to issue a citywide mask order in the first place was in dispute. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield and the sponsor of HB294, said at the time that she did not. Mendenhall’s office argued in April that “HB294 relates only to health orders, not the mayor’s ability to exercise emergency powers to protect life in an emergency.”
When the statewide mask mandate was lifted, the Salt Lake County Council voted against putting its own mask order in place for the state’s most populous county.
Gary Edwards, the soon-to-retire executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, declined to comment on Tuesday’s UDOH declaration.
Mendenhall said she will issue an executive order to require masks at all city facilities — not unlike Cox’s ongoing order to require masks at all state-owned facilities, including liquor stores. Also, Mendenhall said, the city “will continue encouraging people to wear life-saving masks while COVID remains a very real and present risk to public health.”
Many businesses and organizations — from the corner store to Vivint Arena — have kept mask rules and social distancing protocols in place, after government rules were lifted.
Salt Lake City, Mendenhall noted, is still in the “moderate” transmission level, based on state guidelines. “In our city, we still see more cases and fewer vaccinations in our west side neighborhoods, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 for the entirety of the pandemic,” she said.
UDOH will continue to use its COVID-19 transmission index, the system of rating counties as having “high,” “moderate” or “low” levels coronavirus spread. From here on out, though, the index will only be an advisory tool for people and businesses.
As of Tuesday, one county, Grand, was in the “high” transmission category. Twelve counties, including most of the Interstate 15 corridor from Utah County to the Idaho border, were in the “moderate” category. Sixteen counties, most of them in rural parts of the state, were designated at a “low” transmission level.
Correction: May 4, 2021, 7:28 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that the new statewide public health order for schools will end on June 15. An initial news release and an earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date.