HMK students will need masks for the first month of school

The Grand County School District, with the backing of the regional health department and county government, enacted a mask mandate for students that takes effect on the first day of school and will remain in effect for 30 days thereafter.

County and school officials announcing the decision said the community had “a unique opportunity to make a positive decision on behalf of Grand County students, staff, and families,” and the decision in question was to establish a mask mandate for local schoolchildren too young to qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Signing on to the announcement were the school district, the Southeast Utah Health Department, the Grand County Commission, and Moab Regional Hospital.

The decision makes Grand’s the only school district in Utah to have a mask mandate. Salt Lake County had issued an order last week for K-6 students to wear masks in the classroom, but two days later, the Salt Lake County Council voted 6-3 to overturn it.

The Grand County Commission approved a letter of support for the mask mandate on Tuesday, Aug. 17. The commission said the mask mandate was “not an ideal course of action, and one not taken lightly given the challenges associated with masking for our children, families, teachers and school administrators,” but commissioners nonetheless supported it.

Grand County was one of few counties in Utah that had a mask mandate until the Utah Legislature passed a law in March preempting such rules.

As for what will happen after the 30-day order expires, officials said that case trends in Grand County but especially vaccine eligibility would guide their decision.

“During the 30 days, case counts in Grand County will be closely monitored, and if necessary, the mask mandate will be renewed,” the announcement read.

Officials backing the measure said that the reason the mask mandate would only affect students in grades K-6 was that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet given emergency approval for any vaccine for children younger than 12.

In Utah alone, unvaccinated persons (compared to vaccinated persons) are at 6 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19, at 6 times greater risk of hospitalization from it, and at 9 times greater risk of dying from it.

Once a vaccine is approved for children ages 5 to 12, “it is likely there will be no further mask mandates,” officials said in the announcement.

Utah law allows county and regional health departments to establish a 30-day mask mandate, subject to the veto of either the county’s elected body or the Utah Legislature.

Southeast Utah Health Department Brady Bradford said it seemed that the department had the authority to renew the mask mandate after 30 days, but its attorneys were still reviewing the matter.

Monday evening, following the announcement of the mask mandate, Moab residents took to social media to air both their frustrations and their support for the new rule.

One poster criticized the decision as last-minute, complaining that it was “three days till school starts and you pull this!” Grand County Superintendent Taryn Kay and Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff responded to the post.

“We need to remember that masks protect those around us,” Sadoff said in a comment. “When someone chooses not to have their child wear a mask, they put the other kids around their child at-risk, not their own. So they actually end up ‘choosing’ the health of another child.”

Kay said in a comment that the notification about the mandate “came out as soon as was possible. We have watched schools around the country open and are making decisions based on science and our responsibility to keep kids safe.”

In the name of defending the neighborhood, Grand County denies upzone

The Grand County Commission voted unanimously at a meeting in early August to deny a rezone request even though it aligned with its future land use plan and recommendations from its planning and zoning department.

The rezone would have affected a 5-acre lot on Highway 191, between 400 East and Millcreek Drive. The lot is currently split between rural residential and highway commercial zoning; the rezone would have made it a fully highway commercial zone.

Clamor from county residents against the three-acre rezone request inspired both the county commission and its planning commission to flout its plans and zoning director, John Guenther, who the county hired in May.

“There was a lot of public opposition to this,” said Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin. She said she talked to one resident who said she felt “burnt out” from trying to fight fights against zone changes in Grand County.

Guenther responded by saying that his department “tries to respond to things that are substantive concerns.” He acknowledged that many residents “feel and are passionate about things,” but the rezone under consideration had long-range land use support.

Guenther also said that common practice with properties that have split zoning, such as is the case with the 5-acre parcel in question, is to convert it to the zone with the higher and better use. In this case, that would have been the commercial zone, which allows for higher-density development.

“Grand County has limited land designated for commercial use,” Guenther said in the staff report about the rezone. “More commercially zoned land could allow for opportunities for economic development or high density housing.”

The future land use map in Grand County’s 2012 General Plan also called for the split parcel to be zoned for highway commercial use. Guenther told the commission that most of the public comments regarding the rezone “were not substantive to general plan amendment,” which is what denial of the rezone constituted.

“Most of the concerns that were raised were more around zoning, which is a subdivision question and a use question and not a general plan point,” Guenther said.

In other words, the complaints residents lodged opposed the possibility of commercial activity occurring on the part of the parcel currently zoned for rural residential housing. The complaints did not address the general plan from which zoning decisions must flow to meet the county’s broader goals.

The decision calls into question the county’s commitment to its long-term land use plans and confidence in its staff, who are tasked with providing the commission day-to-day support in achieving those goals.

Previously, The Times-Independent reported on the county’s failure to complete its 2017 housing plan, adopted in partnership with the City of Moab. The plan identified 26 items on which the county was to take the lead. Eight of those items have been completed; five are incomplete, and the remaining 13 are ongoing or partially complete.

The county last month began in earnest the process of revamping many of its long-languishing plans — chief among them, its general plan, which county officials have said is meant to be updated every five years.

Decisions about future land use map amendments and changes to the county’s housing plan are expected as it moves from high-level to more specific planning in the coming months, mediated by Guenther and his planning and zoning staff.