Utah Governor Spencer Cox Counters Existing Mask Mandate by Exempting State Buildings

Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox countered an existing mask mandate by exempting state buildings and the Utah Capitol.

Cox's office emailed guidance saying that masks are encouraged, but not required, in a majority of state facilities. He said local government rules do not cover state buildings.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, said Cox lacks the authority to make exemptions from the 30-day order issued amid a COVID surge due to the Omicron variant.

The Salt Lake County Health Department began the county mandate Friday. It is scheduled to stay in effect until Feb. 7 and came after days of record case numbers.

The county council presiding over Utah's capital has a Republican majority and overturned a mask mandate in the past. However, Republican council members said the Omicron surge's severity and disruption led to this rule staying in place.

On Sunday, Salt Lake County Council Chair Laurie Stringham, a Republican, said she would not call for a special session to discuss overturning the order. County leaders have cited an increase in cases among students, staffing shortages in fire and police stations, and long testing lines.

The Utah Legislature, also with a Republican majority, could overturn the mask mandate once it starts its annual session Jan. 18, according to the Deseret News.

Spencer Cox, Mask Mandate Exemption
Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox lacks the authority to make exemptions from the 30-day order issued amid a COVID surge due to the Omicron variant. In this photo, Cox talks after hearing testimony In a unofficial hearing, before members of the Utah House and Senate along with several hundred gay and lesbian rights supporters in support of Utah bill SB100 at the Utah State Capitol on Feb. 26, 2014, in Salt Lake City, Utah. George Frey/Getty Images

The order requires N95 and KN95 or similar masks for a month in indoor spaces, including schools, marking the first mask mandate in many parts of the county since the school year started. Cloth masks are acceptable until a respirator can be obtained.

Those masks are a proven protection from the virus, and public health orders are the only tools currently available to get widespread use, Stringham said.

"Instead of looking out for our fellow man, we have made this so incredibly political, divisive and uncivil," she said. The county has delivered N95 and KN95 masks to libraries and senior centers for county residents to pick up, and she called on the state to move more out of storage.

County health officials say education about the purpose of the order and supplying a mask to individuals in violation will be the primary method of enforcement.

There are exemptions in the order, and students don't need a doctor's note if they need exemptions for allowed reasons.

The Omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show Omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous Delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization, and death.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.