SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Legislature passed a measure Wednesday that would bar public schools and universities from implementing mask mandates, in a move that Democrats and Republicans argued would increase unnecessary governmental oversight.
Republican Rep. Val Peterson, who sponsored the bill, said county officials would still be able to invoke mask orders in consultation with local health officials in schools that have coronavirus outbreaks. The legislation only applies to COVID-19 and would not prevent people from wearing face coverings.
“At some point this has to end,” Peterson said. “What this bill is really about is making sure we have those assurances to our students that they can go forward next fall and get right into the school year without the thought of masks and what that might mean.”
Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, a Democrat, argued that waiting to require masks until an outbreak occurs could still put children’s lives at risk.
“For me, a single dead child is a child too many,” she said. “The problem with the way this is set up is, absent an actual outbreak, we can’t ask students to wear masks and the whole point of a mask is to prevent an outbreak.”
Requiring masks in schools has been contentious for Utah parents over the last year. Granite School District board members were forced to adjourn a meeting and call police earlier this month after 30 to 40 anti-mask parents began shouting.
Republican Gov. Spencer Cox announced last week that Utah would not require masks in K-12 schools for the last week of the academic year. A mask order for K-12 schools previously was expected to end June 15, when most districts let out for summer.
The Republican governor previously defended his administration’s decision to mandate masks in schools over parent protests but said the state had no plans to require masks for K-12 students next fall.
The bill now moves to the governor's desk before being signed into law.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.