Referendum filed in hopes of repealing mask mandate

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As of Aug. 27, masks are required in all of Provo’s public spaces. (Whitney Bigelow)

A local group called Utahns for Medical Freedom filed an application for a referendum on Monday, Aug. 31 to challenge Provo City Council’s recent face mask ordinance. 

The ordinance requiring face masks in Provo’s public spaces was passed Aug. 27, overriding Mayor Michelle Kaufusi’s veto of the original citywide mask mandate passed by the council Aug. 25. Utahns for Medical Freedom claim the council’s face mask mandate is violating residents’ constitutional rights.

“The city has overstepped their bounds,” said Utahns for Medical Freedom organizer Mary Ann Nielsen. “They should’ve left this up to the individual citizen to decide. Especially since it involves an individual’s personal health decisions.” 

The earliest the ordinance could appear on a ballot is Nov. 2021, according to Provo City Recorder Amanda Ercanbrack. “Any legislative action that takes place after Apr. 15 goes on the following year’s ballot,” she said. 

Utahns for Medical Freedom need 3,200 valid signatures, or 7.5% of active voters, from four out of the five city council districts in order to have the ordinance placed on the Nov. 2021 ballot. Before the group can start collecting signatures, it must go through a series of steps that could go until as late as Sept. 25 to be completed, Ercanbrack said. The group has 45 days after that to collect the required signatures.

If Utahns for Medical Freedom makes the 45-day deadline, the mask mandate will be put on hold until the Nov. 2021 election. While the ordinance is already set to expire on Nov. 15 of this year, Nielsen is worried about future mandates.

“This (referendum) will help us to strengthen one another and be prepared to stop future mandates of this sort,” she said. 

If the City Council renews the ordinance before Oct. 20, Utahns for Medical Freedom will not need to file another referendum. But if the current ordinance self-expires and the council passes a new one, Utahns for Medical Freedom would have to start over again with a new referendum. 

Nielsen claimed in the group’s press release that according to Article VI Section 1 of the Utah Constitution, as soon as a referendum has been filed, the law is put on hold until the referendum process is completed. 

However, Ercanbrack said that according to Utah Code Section 20A-7-601(5)(b), it is not until the referendum has been “declared sufficient” that the law is no longer in effect. Ercanbrack said the referendum isn’t sufficient until all required signatures have been collected. 

Councilor Shannon Ellsworth said she was not at all surprised by the referendum being filed after they passed the mask mandate. 

“In my time as a council member, there have been few things that people have been so abjectly opposed to,” she said.

But Councilor George Handley does have some concerns surrounding the mask mandate debate.

“When there’s confusion in the community about whether or not the pandemic is a big deal and whether we should worry about its mortality rates, that’s concerning to me,” he said. “I think we need more and better information for the public so that people understand just how serious this is.”

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