Hibben: Why Do Utah Lawmakers Think the Pandemic is Over?   


The Utah State Capitol building | The Daily Utah Chronicle archives

By Aya Hibben, Opinion Writer


Across the nation, many red states have started to end mask mandates, responding to the frustration of so-called “anti-maskers” that the government imposing mask mandates is a step too far. In Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox is soon expected to sign H.B. 294, Pandemic Emergency Powers Amendment, which will end his authority to create a mask mandate. Assuming Utah hits certain vaccine distribution rates, positivity rates, and other criteria, Utah will end its mask mandate on April 10, though schools and large gatherings will still be required to have masks. In addition, Cox has signaled he will sign S.B. 195, which restricts his powers and prevents local elected officials from issuing emergency orders (like mask mandates) for longer than 30 days. This will prevent local leaders from protecting their counties from COVID-19 even as most counties still face high transmission rates. The new law will take away powers from localities and small businesses and prioritize the state legislature’s wants over individual counties’ needs.

The Utah Legislature has no place in forcing the governor to make these decisions for the entire state, and should not take away the executive emergency powers of local leaders simply because masks are an inconvenience. Masks are necessary even after vaccinations, since we are unsure of the full extent of vaccines’ effectiveness against new strains of the virus or in preventing its transmission.

Currently, 11% of Utahns are now fully vaccinated — nowhere near the rates at which experts suggest restrictions can be loosened. Most experts agree that 70% of the population must be vaccinated or have had the virus to approach herd immunity. Even with the 25% of Utah residents have contracted the virus, our vaccination numbers bring us nowhere near that 70% immunity rate. And even though all Utahns 16 and older are allowed to be vaccinated, technical vaccine accessibility doesn’t mean a needle in the arm. I tried to schedule an appointment for vaccination and was shocked to find they were booked out for months. And, importantly, vaccine appointments are made mostly through the phone or online, unfairly affecting those who struggle with digital literacy, speaking English and computer access. Appointments are also difficult to find, and most are offered during the day when people are working. Low-income workers might not have the privilege to take off work. This also means that at-risk populations may not be able to get the vaccine before others even with priority access dates.

We also don’t know how long vaccines last in fighting off COVID-19. The CDC states that there is no information on how long vaccines last, so we should not abandon our masks based on limited knowledge of future efficacy. Finally, we don’t know how effective the vaccines are against new variants of the coronavirus, which are more contagious. These variants are constantly changing and we can’t predict how safe we will be. Wearing a mask is one step we can all take to protect ourselves and each other, since they are proven to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus. While social distancing is another important measure, it’s difficult to enforce, and many still find it hard to remember or follow even a year into the pandemic.

Given all this, the irony of Cox’s move to sign these bills is astounding. Anti-mask protests have revolved around the premise that the government is intruding on individual liberties. But in Utah, the state making indiscriminate decisions and taking away power from local authorities is exactly what anti-maskers have spoken against. Only six counties in Utah (out of 29) have “low” transmission rates. So why are the legislature and the governor forcing localities to give away their authority to choose? S.B. 195 prevents local executive branches from making emergency decisions without legislative approval, meaning that if cases go back up and Utahns’ safety is at risk, we will all have to wait for the legislature to make a decision to protect us. Some leaders, like Salt Lake City Mayor Jenny Wilson, say they might implement mask mandates in their counties, but this bill will take away that power after 30 days. While ending mask mandates might seem like a relief, the infringement on local powers is another concerning consequence of this action.

Masks are definitely annoying, but annoyance isn’t a reason to lose lives and override local authority. Thousands of lives have been saved by simple pieces of cloth. Cox and the Utah State Legislature should not make blanket decisions for the entire state as if they possess a crystal ball. We don’t know the future of the virus. It’s simply better to be safe than sorry.


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