Utah’s economic plan: Stick with social distancing while expanding COVID-19 testing, medical research and aid

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert makes comments about the evolving economic situation associated with COVID-19, in a news conference at the Utah state Capitol, Friday, March 20, 2020.

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Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled a three-stage plan Tuesday for rebuilding Utah’s economy from ravages of the coronavirus emergency while sticking, for now, to strict social distancing meant protect the health of state residents.

The strategy — available at http://coronavirus.utah.gov — would be in effect for between six and a half and nine months. It combines expanded testing and efforts to lower transmission rates with strategies to guide the economy through urgent, stabilized and recovering stages of the crisis.

“This is the most comprehensive plan of any state in America,” Herbert said in a teleconference announcing it, adding that its strategies were dynamic, data-driven and placed equal priority on protecting Utahns’ health and restoring and boosting commerce.

“This is not my plan,” the governor said, noting the nearly 100 government, business and health leaders involved in its drafting. “This is our plan.”

The blueprint underscores the need for Utahns to continue to follow strict public health measures and social distancing during a first phase of eight to 12 weeks, which would extend to at least late May but possibly to late June. It also asks residents to “stay engaged with the economy” and help those hurting from the emergency.

The plan also envisions “historic levels of economic stimulus,” including a share of the nearly $2 trillion relief package being drafted in Congress, help from private businesses and philanthropists — and the prospect of tapping the state of Utah’s nearly $1 billion rainy-day fund at some point.

Funds from all those sources would be pumped into jobless benefits, loans to businesses and nonprofits, delaying tax and other payments and a series of multimillion-dollar federal grants to the states.

Herbert went on record Tuesday saying he’d rather Utah officials decided how most of that money was spent, instead of federal authorities.

“Don’t send FEMA!” he told Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who has tested negative for the virus but remains quarantined, in one exchange Tuesday, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We’re better than FEMA!”

The state plan also calls for expedited research on new vaccines and medical therapies for the disease — and tasks state officials and the private sector with securing supplies of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, two drugs thought to be effective in treating the virus.

The governor called for a national “Manhattan Project” to develop new coronavirus treatments, akin to the intense 1940s-era wartime effort to develop an atomic bomb. “I expect there will be a vaccine,” he said.

But Herbert said Utah is stopping short of calling for an immediate shelter-in-place order, already enacted by governors in 13 other states. That decision is drawing criticism from some; the Utah Academy of Family Physicians called Tuesday for a statewide stay-at-home order.

“All of humanity needs to do that right now,” said Nick Fahs, proprietor of Salt Lake City’s Table X Restaurant, who has sent his staff home to self-isolate for the duration. “It’s not just about Utah. Everything we’re doing in this state affects other states and other people.”

Herbert instead referred to an interplay between protecting health and restoring the economy as “a balancing act.”

“I don’t think we’re to that point of having everybody quarantined to their home,” the governor said. “We want to protect the health and welfare of the people. And yet we want to make sure that the economy doesn’t completely tank, either.“

That said, instead of heeding President Donald Trump’s call on Monday to begin lifting limits on face-to-face interactions in the U.S. and for getting "back to business” by Easter, Utah’s plan links any easing of social distancing to specific benchmarks in bringing its infection rate down.

Sticking to guidelines from health officials while Utah remains in the urgent stage of the outbreak, the plan says, will shorten other phases and accelerate Utah’s recovery. But failure to tightly follow social distancing over the next eight to 12 weeks, it says, could bring even tougher restrictions and prolong the crisis.

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and one of the plan’s key architects, invoked Utah’s pioneer heritage and called on residents to pull together in a “Beehive mentality” to beat the virus.

“These are all things that will help us as we go into the restoration of our economy,” said Gochnour, also a member of Herbert’s Governor’s Economic Response Task Force.

During this urgent phase, health officials will seek to protect and build hospital capacity and the state will press on research for breakthroughs in treatments to reduce how long infected Utahns might be sick, the plan says.

Crucially, the strategy calls for up to 4,000 coronavirus tests to be deployed daily in coming weeks, along with tracing the contacts of those infected, in hopes of stemming transmission. The state expected to conduct 2,600 tests Tuesday.

And only when Utah lowers the average number of residents infected by each individual who tests positive — from about 1.5 infected to one — would state authorities consider moving to the plan’s next stage.

If all those measures work, Utah would proceed to a more stable phase in the crisis by the end of May or June, the plan says, and that would last between 10 and 14 weeks, or well into July, August or even September.

At that point, social distancing would continue “but in a more targeted careful way,” according to the blueprint. Utahns in high-risk categories would continue staying home, but limits on group sizes and self-imposed travel bans would start to loosen. Some closed business would reopen with strict precautions and the state Department of Health would review its closure of dine-in restaurant options.

The plan also offers guidance on what those virus precautions might look like sector by sector in the economy.

Aid would continue to flow to the jobless and small business owners. Layoffs would begin to slow, the plan predicts, and bank lending would slowly expand. Utah’s goal at this stage would be to reduce the person-to-person transmission ration of the virus to less than one, according to Gochnour.

Around that stabilizing stage would also see Utah lawmakers call a special session — held electronically — and deploy some of the state’s near-$1 billion rainy-day fund to bolster aid to those hit hardest by the crisis and inject money into “shovel-ready” public projects to start to spur economic growth.

In phase three of the plan, extending at least into late October and possibly until December and with infection rates gradually falling to zero, testing for COVID-19 would “become mainstream.” While contact tracing of those affected would continue, Utahns would begin to travel. In-house dining would resume with some restrictions, and officials predict layoffs would end while telecommuting would expand, “because of lessons learned."

Pent-up demand in the economy, stymied for months by health measures, would “come on strong.” As revenue surpluses return, the state would begin to replenish its reserve accounts. And it would then retool its economic development efforts to focus on catalyzing the recovery and regaining its position as one of the strongest state economies in the U.S.

If all goes to plan.