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Summit County says state political factors affect local public health policies

The Utah State Capitol
The Utah State Capitol

Summit County Manager Tom Fisher says political considerations about the Utah Legislature’s reaction to county health orders affects the local pandemic response.

One of the first orders of business in the state Senatewas to terminate mask mandates in place in Summit and Salt Lake counties. Legislators completed the process before the general session finished its first week.

Summit County Manager Tom Fisher told KPCW that legislators were making a statement that they believe the public health emergency is done. And he said he wasn’t sure they had the right thing in mind while they were doing so.

“I understand their argument,” Fisher said. “I don't think that necessarily allows the public health system to protect public health.”

The joint resolution terminated any mask mandate in place in Utah. It originally banned any new such order from being passed until April, but that language was dropped. It appears that local officials could impose new mask mandates if they wish.

Fisher said those decisions in Summit County would not be made merely with public health in mind, but also with an eye toward potential political ramifications.

“Each time we do that, it seems to cause a reaction at the state level that puts more constraint on us,” Fisher said. “So it just brings another factor into our thinking that is not public health related. It's more political related, on what is the reaction going to be from a higher authority, not necessarily based on what we're seeing in Summit County.”

Summit County has consistently been among the first in Utah to impose public health measures, starting with a stay-at-home order as soon as the first case of community spread in the state was discovered here in March 2020.

State leaders have frequently targeted local pandemic measures and moved to consolidate public health authority in the Legislature, including with the so-called “pandemic endgame” bill last year.

Fisher’s comments echostatements county leaders have made in the past. Under the system in place in the summer of 2020, the county had to request permission from the governor’s office to enact some policies. Then-Health Director Rich Bullough said the county would need “all the political capital it could muster” to impose the public health measures he thought would be needed later that year.

Speaking Wednesday, Fisher said he would rather the county’s pandemic-related policies be based solely on what is best for public health and not have to take into account what he called “political wranglings.”

Fisher said the county’s pandemic response moving forward would focus on encouraging vaccinations, hand-washing and staying home if sick.

“If you're looking for ways of predicting what's going to be happening in the future, the state has taken that authority,” Fisher said. “And so we will be covering as best as we can with the resources we have, in order to deal with what we see in Summit County. But, you know, the state authorities have made the decision on how we are going to be constrained in the future.”

Information about where to get a vaccine or booster shot can be found at vaccines.gov.

Alexander joined KPCW in 2021 after two years reporting on Summit County for The Park Record. While there, he won many awards for covering issues ranging from school curriculum to East Side legacy agriculture operations to land-use disputes. He arrived in Utah by way of Madison, Wisconsin, and western Massachusetts, with stints living in other areas across the country and world. When not attending a public meeting or trying to figure out what a PID is, Alexander enjoys skiing, reading and watching the Celtics.