Commentary: County Council did its duty deciding mask mandate policy

With Thursday’s highly-contentious vote by the Salt Lake County Council to overturn the county school mask mandate, we saw a vivid example of elected leaders making a consequential policy decision instead of allowing unelected experts to make policy affecting tens of thousands of children and families.

It was a difficult decision, a very close call, and reasonable people can disagree and make strong arguments on both sides.

And I have the utmost respect for Dr. Angela Dunn, the Salt Lake County Health director, and don’t fault her at all for imposing the mandate. From a purely health perspective, not taking into account all other factors, it was the right call.

Also, I hope parents across the state will choose to have their children wear masks in school, at least those who can. Do it willingly because it will protect your children, your family and the rest of the community.

But I think the County Council made the right decision, all things considered, to let parents decide what’s best for their children.

I believe parents should be strongly encouraged to have their children wear masks. There are many persuasive reasons to do so. But, ultimately, I would not want to take that right away from parents and allow government to force children to wear masks against their parents’ wishes.

The County Council looked at the issue more broadly than simply the way a health expert would view it. One key issue is whether the mandate would be accepted and followed by most parents and families. There is hardly a more emotional or contentious issue than forcing children to wear masks. Policymakers ought to think twice about imposing a law that is virulently hated, that creates a civil war.  

I believe had the council upheld the mandate we’d see an enormous uproar with thousands of families pulling their children from public schools to either home school them or try find a private alternative. I think the result would be more children suffering another lost school year and that would be worse than going to school without a mask.

I’m also aware that many parents favor mask mandates and view the anti-maskers as anti-science troglodytes who don’t know what’s best for their children and will endanger all children in a school. But these parents can send their children to school in masks and the science says they should be protected.  

It is the role of elected policymakers to take a broad view, including constituent desires, to oversee the experts throughout government. We don’t allow health experts to make all the policy decisions about health, just as we don’t allow generals to decide whether to go to war.

We don’t allow highway safety experts to establish all the driving rules based only on safety concerns. If we did, we’d all be driving 20 mph and our vehicles would be built like tanks. Having elected leaders make the ultimate policy is why society allows alcohol, nicotine, gluttony, skydiving and building homes in floodplains, despite clear evidence about the health consequences.

So I hope we don’t have a civil war over this issue. It’s a tough one. The majority on the County Council took a broad view, stepped up, and did what they think is best for a majority of their constituents. They did the right thing.