What do recent bills passed by the Utah Legislature mean for the COVID-19 pandemic Response?

Picture of the Utah State Capitol

The Utah Legislature passed several bills during the recent legislative session that directly address the COVID-19 pandemic. While this action may be seen as proclaiming an end of the pandemic, these bills were passed after coordination with Governor Cox. Gov Cox has said recently that some of these actions are happening too soon, but would have happened sooner if he and his team hadn’t negotiated with the Legislature. 

Let’s be clear, elected officials do not decide when a pandemic is “over.” COVID-19 will remain in our society long after the official “pandemic” period has passed. These bills represent balancing the desire by the Legislature to decrease restrictions across the state with the need to remain diligent in protecting the health of all Utahns. 

Broken down, this is what each of these bills mean to the COVID-19 response: 

HB 294 – “Pandemic Emergency Powers Amendments” 

Signed by Governor Cox on 3/24/21

This bill ends certain restrictions put into place by executive and public health orders related to COVID-19. The termination of those restrictions is based on specific, data driven milestones; for example, case rates, ICU utilization, and vaccine availability . 

The final version of the bill says restrictions will end once Utah’s 14-day case rate reaches a level below 191 per 100,000, the state’s ICU seven-day hospitalization rate is less than 15%, and at least 1.63 million prime doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been allocated to the state. While we anticipate these thresholds will be met by July 1, 2021, should we see another spike in cases, public health officials will work with Utah’s elected leaders to implement appropriate safety measures after this date. 

The bill removes the statewide mask mandate on April 10 regardless of meeting the metrics stated above. However, masks can still be required for group gatherings of more than 50 people. County governments still have the ability to enact local restrictions if they choose. These local restrictions would end once the state meets the metrics previously stated. 

The bill also allows private businesses the ability to keep mask requirements in place if they choose. Please be respectful of business owners and staff at businesses that choose to require masks in their buildings. Likewise, please be respectful of individuals who don’t feel it necessary to wear masks where they’re not required. 

The bill also keeps in place the mask mandate and other safety measures for public K-12 schools until, at the latest, July 1, 2021. School districts should continue to work with their local health departments to ensure the health and safety of all of Utah’s school aged children. 

Even after statewide restrictions and mask mandates have been lifted, guidance set forth in the Utah Transmission Index, COVID-19 Business Manual, COVID-19 School Manual and on the Protect Yourself page related to quarantine and isolation is valuable and should be considered when meeting with others outside your household. The Utah Department of Health still encourages the use of face masks as an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

You can read the full bill here. 

SB 107 – “In-Person Instruction Prioritization”

Signed by Governor Cox on 3/24/21

This bill is intended to keep schools open and kids in the classroom. It requires the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) to support widespread testing under certain conditions so that schools can continue to operate in-person. 

So-called “soft-closures” are no longer be allowed. Public health departments would assist school districts in conducting “Test to Stay” procedures when schools have reached the following points in cases: 

  • 2% positivity if schools have 1,500+ students


  • 30 positive cases if schools have fewer than 1,500 students

Schools could choose to implement “Test to Stay” prior to meeting the above threshold.

As part of the  “Test to Stay” process, school districts must have a parent’s permission to test students younger than 18. 

In addition, the bill would require schools to offer in-person instruction at least 4 days a week starting March 21, 2021. 

You can read the full bill here.

SB 195 – “Emergency Response Amendments” 

Signed by Governor Cox on 3/24/21

This bill changes the process by which the governor and UDOH can declare emergency situations in the state. The intent is to ensure state and locally elected officials are involved with the decisions around a state of emergency, especially when an extended response might be required.  

Under this bill, UDOH is required to provide at least a 24-hour notice to the Legislative Emergency Response Committee before declaring a Public Health Emergency (PHE) or issuing an Order of Constraint (OC). An OC is described as a rule or order that limits public activities. 

Following that process, this bill allows the Legislature, by Joint Resolution, to overturn a PHE Order/Declaration/or OC at any time. This bill also authorizes the Legislature to cancel any emergency declarations made by the governor by the same process. 

This bill also places a 30-day maximum time limit on any PHE or OC starting the day that it is issued. The Legislature may extend any of those orders as well. The UDOH and the governor do have the ability to extend a PHE or State of Emergency on their own when certain “exigent circumstances” arise (exigent circumstances are defined in section 52-2a-203 of the bill). The UDOH must give the state Legislature at least 10 days notice before they intend to extend a PHE. This does not prohibit the UDOH from issuing a subsequent PHE after the original one expires, but it will be subject to the same expiration time frame and legislative override. Also, if the Legislature does override any PHE, one cannot be reissued for the same circumstances. 

This bill also creates a legislative response committee to review emergency declarations and situations that could result in a long-term emergency situation for the state.  

These same rules are applied to local emergency declarations and orders as well, meaning a county can only declare an emergency or put an order in place if they’ve first given at least 24-hour notice to their county elected officials. 

You can read the full bill here.