Robert Gehrke: Utah will survive the coronavirus storm despite the distracting antics of some politicians

Robert Gehrke

Last week, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz looked like an idiot — as he often does — wearing a full-on gas mask to a House vote on emergency legislation to fund the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.

He looked even stupider when — after ridiculing the risk — he was among the Republicans who came into contact at a conservative convention, completing perhaps the most sublime self-own in history. He is now self-quarantined (as he should be). Between those two events, he rode on Air Force One with the president, who is probably immune to all the diseases, so it’s fine.

The battle we are all waging right now is trying to maintain some sort of perspective in the face of an uncertain threat. Do we respond with clownishness or as if it’s a cataclysm?

The answer, of course, falls somewhere in the middle. Right now, there are only two confirmed cases in Utah, but it’s fairly certain that there will be more in the coming weeks. What that means is that Utahns need to exercise caution, remain vigilant and stay informed.

That last piece only works, however, if we can trust the messenger — which brings us to President Donald Trump.

The president is notorious for his loose grasp of reality and for playing fast-and-loose with the facts. Normally that’s a nuisance but doesn’t really matter. But in a crisis, when providing the public with reliable updates and guidance, it isn’t optional that the public trust the statements out of the White House. It’s critical.

So it’s not a laughing matter when Trump tells the public, “We’re going very substantially down, not up. … We have it so well under control.

Or that anyone who needs a test can get one when they cannot. Or that the virus will “miraculously” go away by April when it gets warmer. Or that he would like to keep people quarantined on a cruise ship so it doesn’t inflate the number of cases in the United States and potentially deaths from the disease.

People are more important than his poll numbers.

And when the president or the White House spread misinformation, it’s important that Utah leaders step in to correct them, which is why it was disappointing when Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the point man on the state’s coronavirus response, ordered the deletion of a tweet that sought to correct inaccurate information from the president.

The tweet had a video of Trump saying that “hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work.”

Whether it was done to maintain a good working relationship with the White House or so Cox could maintain a good relationship with Republican voters for his gubernatorial campaign, it was a mistake. Telling people they can go to work if they’re sick isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous, and the state was right to step in and correct it in no uncertain terms.

Generally speaking, though, Cox and state health officials have done a good job in addressing the crisis and have encouraged people who are sick to stay home. Many large employers in Utah are finding ways for their employees to work from home to alleviate the risk of spreading disease.

But in a state with some of the lowest wages in the country, taking time off or working from home is simply not a viable alternative for everyone. If you’re a bus driver or bank teller or a bartender, or if you have a side hustle like so many do, giving up that income is unrealistic.

The Utah Legislature had an opportunity to help many Utah workers, not just coping with the coronavirus but dealing with other curves life will throw, by passing HB69, a bill sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, which would have required companies to let employers take sick leave from a job to care for a family member.

The bill had the support of the Salt Lake Chamber, but was seen as imposing too much of a burden on employers and was voted down in committee.

Another bill, SB186, sponsored by Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, would require companies with more than 30 employees to at least offer unpaid leave. That bill has been stalled in the Senate for the past week.

Look, there are good reasons to think Utah has the tools it needs to weather this coronavirus threat. Lawmakers have set aside $16 million to respond to a potential outbreak. The governor has declared a state of emergency. Our hospitals are on high alert and ready to respond. And we are, thanks to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ emphasis on emergency preparedness, likely better equipped than most states for the event of prolonged disruptions and quarantines.

But for now, as I said, what Utahns need to do is exercise caution, remain vigilant and stay informed. And, instead of gas masks and gaslighting, we need clear-eyed, honest leadership at the top.