As Utah experiences a spate of new COVID-19 infections, Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn has issued a public health order requiring masks.
The order takes effect at 12:01 am on Saturday. It is designed to last 30 days and expires at 5pm on February 7.
It requires everyone in the county to wear well-fitting masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and it also applies to those queuing outside. Children under 2 years of age, those with certain medical conditions, and those who actively eat or drink in a restaurant are exempt.
In a press release announcing the mandate on Friday, Dunn said the move was in response to the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
“We desperately need to use all the tools available to ensure that our hospitals can continue to provide excellent healthcare through this increase,” Dunn said. “We must also ensure that our essential services have the necessary personnel to operate, from law enforcement, plow drivers and school teachers. It is my obligation as a health officer to take the measures that I believe have the best chance of preventing unnecessary suffering in our entire community ”.
Dunn can issue a mandate as director of health, but the county council can revoke it. Council members voted online for the party in August to repeal Dunn’s previous mask mandate for schools, using his veto-proof Republican majority.
“We are pushing vaccines and boosters,” council president Laurie Stringham said Thursday night when asked for comment on a possible mandate.
In a letter sent to the County Council on Friday morning, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urged a mask requirement and expressed alarm at transmission rates in the county. He noted that the seven-day average of positive cases on Dec. 26 was 450, a number that skyrocketed to 1,450 this week. And the Utah Department of Health reported a record number of infections across the state on Friday, topping 9,000.
“Cases are exploding in Utah,” Mendenhall wrote, “and health experts caution that we have not yet seen the peak of the rise in omicron.”
The mayor noted that 65% of eligible county residents have not received a booster shot, raising concerns that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed with infected patients. Mendenhall added that there may soon not be enough healthy doctors and nurses to handle the surge in cases.
“I am also closely watching the trend across the country of city mayors being forced to declare a state of emergency due to staff shortages in their public safety departments,” the mayor wrote. “Community spread affects all functions of our government and, as public officials, we have a responsibility to keep our employees safe.”
Meanwhile, just days after becoming County Council President, Stringham confirmed that she tested positive for COVID-19.
“Clearly omicron is a very powerful variant,” Stringham said, “and it’s outpacing vaccines.”
The Republican council member received her positive test Wednesday night, she said, adding that she is fully vaccinated and that the infection “hit pretty fast and furious,” but her symptoms are improving.
“Hope it happens quickly,” Stringham wrote via text message Thursday night. “The County Health Department is seeing alarming infection rates right now. It is important that people talk to their doctors and take the best precautions for themselves and their families. “
Stringham was selected as president during Tuesday’s regular council meeting. She was also one of only two members who did not wear a mask, even as Dunn presented information on the increase in COVID-19 infections in the county.
That same day, county officials issued a public health advisory urging the public to take more serious precautions against the pandemic, including wearing masks indoors and outdoors, including for those vaccinated. Stringham urged the public to take the notice seriously.
The health department press release notes that the purpose of the health order is to protect the public and keep critical industries served, “not to hold anyone criminally responsible.” He urged business owners and other public space operators to help enforce the mandate.
The full order will be posted on SaltLakeHealth.org before 3pm on Friday.
In a written statement, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, noted that COVID-19 infections are at an all-time high in the county. He called on elected officials, community leaders, and businesses to encourage residents to get vaccinated, boosted, and put on masks.
“While it is encouraging that, thanks to vaccination, we do not expect the general population to see such a serious disease as before,” wrote Wilson, “the rapid increase in total cases … is putting enormous pressure on our hospital system. “
On Thursday, Summit County announced its own mask mandate for all public buildings through February 21.
In his letter to the Salt Lake County Council, Mendenhall said that a countywide mandate would offer more protection than a requirement in Salt Lake City alone.
“Please do everything in your power to protect our residents, our frontline and healthcare workers, and keep schools and businesses open by temporarily requiring masks in public spaces throughout the county,” he wrote. Mayor. “We all want to get back to normal and keeping as many people out of the hospital as possible is a very simple way to help us get there.”