“People want to go back to work,” said Carl Albrecht, Representative for Utah House District 70, which includes Moab, in an April 23 conversation with the Moab Sun News.

Other state leaders agree, and are working on strategies to allow for the controlled opening of some parts of the economy, while maintaining the relatively low transmission rates Utah has so far experienced.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert signaled in an April 24 press conference that he would be easing statewide restrictions and restrictive recommendations, issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, likely by May 1. The move is supported by the recently created Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which was established under the COVID-19 Health and Economic Response Act in the third special session of the Utah legislature this year. Some legislators expressed concern over the commission and the shift toward easing restrictions and opening businesses, but the majority of state-level government officials support the move, calling it a step in the right direction.

State leaders have devised a color-coded risk level system, ranging from red, at the highest risk, through orange, yellow, and finally green at the lowest risk level. Currently, Utah is at the red level; Herbert said in an April 28 press conference that the state will move to the next level down – orange, which indicates a “moderate” risk level – on Friday, May 1. The orange risk level, as described by the commission and in the Utah Leads Together plan, allows for slightly larger group gatherings, some dine-in services at restaurants, and businesses such as retail and overnight lodging resuming limited operations.

Herbert also mentioned outdoor recreation facilities such as golf courses; he said that the state was in discussions with the Department of the Interior about opening Lake Powell to visitors. All these activities will be tempered by precautions such as screening employees as they report for work, requiring masks and hand sanitizer, and providing room for people to spread out at least 6 feet apart. The full plan can be found here:coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-leads-together/#2.0

New commission forms

The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission was established to advise the governor on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill establishing the body also dictated that it submit a plan to the governor by April 22, recommending guidelines for a reduced-risk level for the state. The commission is composed of 10 members, with four appointed by the governor, two appointed by the president of the Utah Senate, two appointed by the speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, one member appointed by the Utah Association of Counties (UAC), and one member designated by the executive director of the Utah Department of Health. The governor must then approve the plan or reject it, giving reasons for doing so, by April 30.

During debates on SB 3004 – the bill establishing the commission – some legislators pointed out that the Utah COVID-19 Task Force already has an Economic Response team, which has produced the “Utah Leads Together Plan.” The task force issued a “2.0” version of the plan on April 17, which defines the color-coded risk level system. However, some legislators felt they wanted more legislative input in statewide responses, and saw the commission as a way to achieve that.

“This is an attempt to bring some legislative oversight into those decisions and to make it more inclusive of other branches of government, mainly the legislative branch,” said Representative Mike Shultz, co-sponsor of the bill establishing the commission and its objective, noting that the commission is only an advisory body. “The governor still has the ultimate responsibility for that decision-making.”

He also emphasized that the new commission would complement the existing task force, not conflict with it. The plan submitted to the governor by the commission recommended that he declare a risk level of “orange” as described in the Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan, with small tweaks to details such as how many feet of distance people must maintain while patronizing businesses.

During discussions, legislators also brought up concerns about who would be on the commission. Several asked why there were no positions slated specifically for medical doctors (two spots on the commission were specifically set aside for the director of a for-profit and the director of a nonprofit hospital.) Others wanted to ensure representation on the commission from minority communities, rural communities, or the business community. State Rep. Kim Coleman pointed out that the UAC is a private nonprofit entity with membership dues, and it shouldn’t be granted appointment as a member of a government body.

Shultz and the bill’s other sponsor, Senator Daniel Hemmert, assured their respective legislative bodies that the hospital director positions required on the commission will provide ample medical knowledge for the assigned task, which is focused more on economic response than on care and treatment for patients.

Other legislators echoed Albrecht in session discussions, saying they’d heard from their constituents the desire to resume operation of businesses and other organizations. A minority of legislators had a more cautious perspective. State Senator Gene Davis, who serves the 3rd district located in South Salt Lake City, expressed concern that the ramping up of the economy could come at a cost of public health, especially among more vulnerable populations.

“That really concerns me, that we can worry more about the dollars in this state than we do worry about the individuals in certain communities,” Davis said.

Hemmert assured Davis that while economic impacts would be considered, they would not be prioritized over public health, and that economic activity would be governed by public health and preparedness indicators.

Representative Patrice Arent was dismayed that the new commission would not be subject to open and public meeting standards, and so did not support the bill. The bill’s sponsors emphasized the need for quick action, implying that publicizing the commission’s proceedings would be too cumbersome for efficiency.

Another concern expressed by some state legislators, and shared by some local elected officials, is that not all areas in the state are experiencing the same infection rates, nor do all Utah areas have similar economies. They worry that decisions based on overall state statistics might have disastrous consequences in local areas in different circumstances. The bill does contain language specifying that risk levels may be locally adjusted in response to local needs, and that risk levels may be moved up or down on the scale, depending on indicators.

Both bill sponsors emphasized that decisions would be made using data.

“So many decisions have been made recently based off of emotions,” said Shultz. “We now have data in place, and we can make decisions based off of data and that’s what we need to do.”

Governor speaks

In his April 24 press conference, Herbert also hailed data as a guiding principle.

“This is not something we’re taking out of the thin air; this is not something where we’re being directed by fear or politics, this is something we’re doing based on data,” he said.

Herbert pointed to declining COVID-19 hospitalizations in Utah, a low transmission rate, high patient capacity in Utah hospitals for both critical and noncritical patients, and a statewide increased testing capacity.

“The data is what’s going to drive us,” he repeated. “It’s not because of politics, it’s not because of some fear-mongering that’s out there. It’s based on good data that tells us what the science and what the medicine would dictate to us to do.”

Herbert said that based on the numbers being collected and analyzed by state staff, he anticipated approving the recommendation from the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, once they had satisfied him on two points: how the plan would specifically care for Utah’s most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, those with pre-existing medical conditions, and employees returning to the workplace and thus increasing their risk of exposure; and how the plan would accommodate for regional differences in determining appropriate risk guidelines. Herbert later expanded on this second point, saying,

“I really have been giving deference to the local elected officials and the local regional health departments. I think they know their areas better than anybody... We’re not going to be just willy-nilly in how we give direction out there, it’s going to be based on the data, the science, the medical advice that we receive.”

However, Herbert added that as his team looks at moving from a “red” risk level to an “orange” risk level, “it would be nice if that happened throughout the state.”

Herbert also reminded Utah citizens that a reduced risk level does not mean a return to “business as usual,” and that social distancing, masks in public spaces, and personal and environmental hygiene are still crucial.

“Maintaining this trajectory is really the responsibility of all of us,” he said. “We can control our destiny, by doing what we should be doing to protect our loved ones.”