Salt Lake County council votes to overturn school mask order

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Salt Lake County Council on Thursday overturned a school mask order for kids under 12 that the county’s top health official issued this week as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

After the vote by the Republican-controlled council in Utah’s most populous county, a large, unmasked crowd of parents and students began cheering. The decision comes days before children are scheduled to return to school.

After the council’s decision, Salt Lake County Health Director Angela Dunn released a statement reiterating her belief that masks are the best way to protect children who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and urged parents and teachers “to be good role models for children by following health recommendations to wear a mask when indoors in public.”

“I chose to issue a mask order because the delta variant is a serious threat to children and our current transmission rates require a strong intervention — one proven effective last school year,” Dunn said. “Though the order will not stand, I’m optimistic that issuing it clearly signaled my level of concern as a medical professional, and that it will help more parents choose to send their children to school in masks.”

On Tuesday, Dunn had issued an order of constraint requiring children who could not get vaccinated to wear masks in school.

Masks were required in classrooms last year, but under a new state law, school mask mandates are now banned. Local health departments can issue a rule but only with the support from elected county leaders, and anti-mask advocates have been vocal in their opposition.

Meanwhile, a summer surge of the virus among unvaccinated residents has continued to grow while vaccination rates have slightly increased.

New data from the Utah Health Department showed that in the past 28 days, residents who are unvaccinated have been 7.6 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and 6.2 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who are vaccinated.

About 58% of Utah residents ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated as of Thursday, state data shows. Utah reported three new deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 2,521.