The University of Utah and Brigham Young University are preparing for the coming school year. Yet, the Fall 2022 semester brings one shocking difference between the notorious rivals: BYU will require masks this fall, regardless of vaccination status. The U will not. As a student at the U, saying that I am concerned about what awaits on campus this fall is an understatement, and I am not alone. With Utah’s case counts soaring, the Delta variant taking hold and unsurprising vaccine hesitancy plaguing our ultra-conservative state, the only appropriate action is for the U to follow in its rival’s footsteps. Our university must require face coverings this fall, but first, the Utah government needs to let us do so.
On May 28, 2021, H.B. 1007 went into effect for all Utah public schools and public universities thanks to a 50-24 vote in the House and a 23-5 vote in the Senate. This meant that legally, no student could be required to wear a face-covering while on campus or during any class or school-related event. The bill was sponsored by Representative Val Peters and Senator Evan Vickers, both of whom identify with the Republican party and represent more rural parts of the state. In a study done by Pew Research Center, “Republicans accounted for 92% of those expressing skepticism or opposition to masks.” Utah’s Department of Health reported that rural Utah was the least compliant in mask-wearing protocols. In advocating for H.B. 1007 Rep. Peters and Sen. Vickers made it abundantly clear that they value the admiration of their constituents more than their constituents’ lives.
While H.B. 1007 has never been acceptable, but it could have been tolerated at the time of its passing considering things were seemingly optimistic. Summer was just beginning, vaccine rates were rising as they had recently been approved for people over the age of 18 and the first Utah case of the Delta variant was not close to arrival. Today, this is far from the case, and as much as we all want the pandemic to take its final bow, ignoring advised health protocols leaves the state with a year full of foreseeable shut-downs, quarantines and isolation.
Unlike the privately-funded BYU, the University of Utah is a public institution and is therefore bound by H.B. 1007. But there are ways to repeal the law and ensure that the U requires face coverings until vaccine rates are higher and case counts are lower. For example, Gov. Cox could call the legislature into a special session and publicly pressure them to overturn the law. But even if the Governor agreed to this, which is unlikely, the chances of the repeal being successful are slim when considering the original votes of H.B. 1007. Alternatively, a school district (or in this case university) could possibly dodge this ban if it worked in collaboration with a local health department or a county government to institute a mask mandate.
As of last Friday, August 20th the COVID-19 case counts in Utah were almost four times what they were three months ago, May 20, 2021 — only eight days before H.B.1007 was implemented. On May 20, 2021, four people in Utah died from COVID-19. On August 20, 2021, that number had more than doubled. The numbers don’t lie: COVID-19 is not going away. It’s time to stop acting like it already did.