GOVERNMENT

Salt Lake County Council members facing pressure, threats over vote on mask mandate

Jan 12, 2022, 7:02 PM | Updated: Jan 13, 2022, 10:30 am
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SALT LAKE CITY — Two members of the Salt Lake County Council say they are receiving pressure, and even threats, to turn over an indoor mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Council Chair Laurie Stringham said she’s received calls from lawmakers both asking her to overturn and to keep the mandate.

“I had one of them [state lawmakers] call me, literally call me, and say ‘what are going to do about the mask thing? You’re going to overturn this, right?’ And I said, well, I’ve got some research to do first before I make that decision.”

“What I want to know, this time, is not the numbers,” she says. “We know our numbers are astronomical. I want to know how it’s affecting our essential services right now, and our schools.”

Stringham says she’s frustrated because it was state lawmakers who gave the county council the power to approve or deny such a mandate — but only that, to approve or deny

“You don’t give us any rights to do anything, except overturn something. I can’t edit it. I can alter it. I can’t do anything except overturn. That’s my only option,” Stringham said. 

Stringham says she’s also gotten calls from lawmakers not to overturn the mandate.

“I had legislators calling me saying ‘please don’t overturn it, we really think this needs to happen’,” she says. “Even though I’m a Republican… I think this really needs to stand right now. We’ve never faced this before. These are higher numbers than we’ve ever faced. It’s not as deadly, but it is for some.”

“Is it a crisis when it comes to the COVID itself? Not exactly,” says Stringham. “It is a crisis when it comes to essential services and keeping schools open? Yes.” 

The 30-day indoor mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department will receive a vote from council members on Thursday. It’s likely to stay in place. They agreed to hold an emergency vote after three rounds of voting and discussion on Tuesday.

Stringham said that despite the vote by her peers, she is inclined to vote to keep the mask mandate. 

“This is about keeping our schools in session,” she says. “That’s what our students need more than anything. If we can’t keep enough teachers and students in school, then we can’t keep them open. What do you do? Go back online? They can’t even go back online on their own. There are a few schools literally trying to get enough teachers right now, who are having to pull secretaries and everybody else to cover what they can cover. Every teacher who has a prep period in our schools today, is having to teach during their prep period.”

Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who will vote to keep the mask mandate, said she’s getting threats, too.

“I’m getting threats from anti-mask groups,” Winder Newton said, “from even some state legislators who are sending messages through the grapevine saying that they found a challenger to challenge me on the Republican ticket if I don’t change my vote.”

Winder-Newton said she has no issue with somebody challenging her for her seat, but she’d like to see more productive disagreements, especially on such polarizing issues.

Both Stringham and Winder Newton said voting to keep the mask mandate is a tough call, but they say it’s a decision that will keep the most people in the county safe against surging cases of the novel coronavirus. 

On Wednesday, Utah health officials reported 10,220 new cases of COVID-19.

Lindsay Aerts and Simone Seikaly contributed to the reporting of this story.

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