Utah legislators passed several measures dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic during the recent special session called by Gov. Spencer. Cox. Chief among them was a vote to ban masks in schools this fall and an agreement to accept more than $1.6 billion in federal pandemic relief funds.
The new mask law prohibits schools and school districts throughout the state from requiring students to wear face masks in the classroom. However, the bill allows such rules under “special circumstances.”
Included in the funding bill was a decision to initially spend only $571 million allocated to the state by the American Rescue Plan Act, kicking the decision on where to spend the rest to the general session in January. The $571 million designated for expenditure included $103 million for business and economic development, $33 million for criminal justice, $15 million for higher education, $127 million for infrastructure (including $90 million for a University of Utah mental health facility), $100 million for water conservation and $165 million for social services including vaccine distribution, pandemic-related mental health services, establishing a food bank in San Juan County and the Navajo Nation and $100 million for replenishing the unemployment compensation fund.
Legislators did divvy the full $1.6 billion in “buckets,” designating spending categories based on priorities. The bucket distribution included $720 million for infrastructure and unemployment solvency, $115 million for ongoing response to the pandemic, $65 million in grants to businesses impacted by the pandemic, $280 million for water infrastructure, $175 million for broadband Internet expansion, $80 million for education, $110 million for emergency preparedness, $35 million to address backlogged courts and $70 million for housing and homelessness.
One spending option that the Legislature turned down was a vaccine lottery. According to Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, legislators felt that Utahns had been “pretty responsible” in getting their shots.