Live coronavirus updates for Thursday, April 16: Utah’s death toll rises to 21; bill approved making primary election largely vote-by-mail

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Speaker Brad Wilson conducts business in a special session in House Chambers, in front of video monitors and a nearly empty room, Thursday April 16, 2020

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It’s Thursday, April 16. We’ll provide the latest coronavirus updates involving Utah throughout the day.

[Read complete coronavirus coverage here.]


7 p.m.: Bill eliminating in-person vote centers in primary election is approved

As vote-by-mail has become a partisan flashpoint nationwide in the response to the coronavirus, Utah’s overwhelmingly conservative Legislature approved a bill making the upcoming primary election almost entirely by-mail with little fanfare on Thursday.

HB3006, sponsored by Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, eliminates in-person vote centers for the June 30 election in an effort to maintain social distancing measure as the pandemic wears on. Drop-off ballot locations will remain open and accommodations will be made for people with disabilities who need to use alternatives to mark their ballots.

Under the bill, counties have the ability to establish drive-up voting centers where someone could vote from his or her car — though Sen. Wayne Harper, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said he thinks most “will likely not choose the mobile voting option.”

Drive-up voting would be a “brand-new concept” in Utah, said Justin Lee, director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

“It’s really something that’s been put in the bill to deal with COVID-19 directly, to allow for some kind of opportunity for people on Election Day who may need to go ‘in person’ but without necessarily having in-person voting locations,” Lee told The Tribune in a previous interview.

The bill will require the lieutenant governor, who’s in charge of elections, to issue health and safety protocols to protect poll workers and government employees who are running the election. Poll workers could be required to use protective gear, wash their hands regularly and social distance from one another, for example.

The lieutenant governor’s office is also tasked with creating a marketing campaign to make sure voters are educated about how to cast their ballots this summer.

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate raised concerns about by-mail voting in counties that don’t provide postage on their ballots. The post office will still deliver ballots without a stamp and will charge counties on the backend — but the lack of postage could be “suppressing votes,” worried Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

“The U.S. Postal Service position on delivery of unstamped ballots is that they will deliver those ballots,” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. “I want to make sure that the people of the state of Utah ahead of this primary election are aware this is no reason not to vote.”

Federal funding set aside to help communities with voting in the time of COVID-19 will likely be used to pay for postage in communities that don’t already pay for it and possibly to reimburse those that do, Moss said. The state anticipates a cost of $300,000 in one-time funding for the public engagement campaign and a net cost of $199,500 for counties statewide as they adapt to the changes.

— Taylor Stevens

4:40 p.m.: Bill aimed at eliminating wait for unemployment benefits in emergencies

The Utah Senate voted Thursday to eliminate a rule requiring a one-week waiting period before unemployment benefits can kick in if the governor or president has issued a state of emergency or if the federal government has agreed to pay for the benefit.

That means Utahns who apply for unemployment benefits can obtain needed assistance sooner as the coronavirus wears on. More than 106,600 Utah residents have reported losing work since March, when the pandemic first arrived in the Beehive State.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden and the bill’s sponsor, said the bill is “fairly narrowly defined.” “But it would allow if there was some kind of disaster other than a pandemic [in the future] to have the flexibility to be able to do this,” she said. “Let’s say we had an earthquake and we decided because we had a state of emergency that as a state we wanted to be able to do this, we could do it.”

Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), states without a waiting period will receive 100% federal funding for unemployment benefits during that first week.

SB3003 now heads to the House for further consideration.

— Taylor Stevens

4:30 p.m.: Bill would put $65 million toward protective equipment, new facilities

Senate lawmakers signed off on a bill that will spend $108 million in federal funds that are heading to the state for coronavirus relief.

The bulk of that amount — about $65 million — will go toward personal protective equipment, traditional and mobile testing facilities and emergency facilities, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson. About $11 million is set aside for small business loans; $2 million for vaccine research; $10 million for rapid and antibody testing; and $20 million for targeted services for at-risk populations, including seniors and people with underlying health conditions, explained Stevenson, R-Layton.

In total, about $688 million in federal coronavirus relief fund money is available to the state, he added.

The legislation, SB3001, also adjusts the timing of certain education funding appropriations, in light of the delayed deadline for income tax filings.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously and will move to the House.

— Bethany Rodgers

2:45 p.m.: 2 new ways to support Utah restaurants

Bank of Utah’s “Chow Down Challenge” and Local First’s “Buy Now, Buy Later, Buy Local” gift card program are two new ways to help restaurants.

The “Chow Down Challenge” gives up to $8,000 in tips to restaurants located near Bank of Utah’s 17 branches. To participate, order takeout or delivery from participating restaurants and post a picture of your food on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram before May 6. Include the restaurant’s name, location and the hashtags #BoUChowDown and @BankofUtah. The bank will give the restaurant a $20 tip for every post up to $200 per business. Click here for the list of participating restaurants.

Diners also can buy a $50 or $100 gift card to a variety of businesses through Local First, an independent business alliance. The “Buy Now, Buy Later, Buy Local” program also has an option to take surveys to reduce the price — yet still give the business the full amount of the card. Click here for more details.

—Zoi Walker

1:50 p.m.: Dunn says starting to reopen the economy May 1 is ‘great goal,' but health data needs to drive decision

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said House Speaker Brad Wilson’s goal, which the speaker laid out earlier Thursday, of reopening the economy gradually by month’s end “is a great goal to have,” but it needs to be done based on what the data shows.

On another matter, Dunn said the state is working with its testing partners to ensure criteria for testing is uniform across the state amid reports that testutah.com was recommending testing for asymptomatic people who had not been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

She said randomized testing can be useful but needs to be done thoughtfully.

— Robert Gehrke

1:40 p.m.: Utah, like others, waiting to see what Trump announces

Utah’s latest COVID-19 death was a male from Salt Lake County over age 85, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Thursday. The man died in a hospital and had been a resident of a long-term-care facility.

Dunn said the Utah Department of Health has a team of mobile medical providers who will be deployed to such facilities if they need additional assistance.

Dunn also said she wasn’t aware of what guidelines President Donald Trump may be planning to announce Thursday afternoon about reopening much of the country, but the state is working on its own measures based on Utah metrics that should be released in the coming days.

“We have to be flexible with our approach to reopening the economy and watch the data coming in,” Dunn said. If there is a surge on health care facilities and cases, for instance, the state could reinstate social distancing practices.

The state’s recommendations for people who have come into close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case should quarantine themselves for 14 days, Dunn said, although there are exceptions for health care workers and first responders. Those are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The state still has unmet testing capacity. Dunn said Utah can do about 5,000 tests a day, but is not maximizing that capacity.

— Robert Gehrke

1:30 p.m.: Schools and colleges getting $200M-plus from feds, with more going to BYU than the U.

Utah schools and colleges will receive more than $200 million in federal relief funding to help move education forward during the coronavirus pandemic.

The money comes from the CARES Act passed by Congress. It is intended to help schools address challenges in getting materials to students, such as buying more laptops or providing extra tutoring when classes resume.

About $68 million of that will go specifically to public K-12 schools, including charters, overseen by the Utah Board of Education.

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said during a board meeting Thursday that the funds will “really help with bridging the gaps that we’re seeing.”

Additionally, $29 million for education will go to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office to distribute.

Several colleges in the state — both public and private — will also get a share, according to a listing from the U.S. Department of Education. That will include $32.2 million for Brigham Young University, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo. The state’s flagship school, the University of Utah, will get $18.8 million.

— Courtney Tanner

1:10 p.m.: Death toll rises to 21

Another Utahn died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 21, the Utah Department of Health announced Thursday.

Details of the deceased were not immediately available.

The death came as the department announced 141 new positive tests for the disease, a 5.5% bump and the largest one-day jump since April 5 and ahead of the 4.4% daily average over the past week. The results bring the statewide total to date to 2,683 cases, with 238 people needing hospitalization since the outbreak began, an increase of 17 since Wednesday.

The department has not provided information on how many of those people are still hospitalized.

Amid pleas in recent days for more Utahns to get tested and new, less-restrictive criteria put in place in order to qualify for testing, 2,064 results were reported by the department, still well below the state’s 4,500 capacity.

— Robert Gehrke

12:55 p.m.: House OKs bill reining in governor’s emergency powers

The Utah House approved a bill Thursday that would require the governor to consult with legislative leaders at least 48 hours before declaring an emergency or issuing an executive order.

It also states that lawmakers can, “at any time,” terminate one of the governor’s orders, rules or directives.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, the bill’s sponsor, said in several recent cases, legislative leaders learned about a forthcoming executive order mere minutes before it went out publicly.

“It’s not too much to ask that, if he’s going to make an executive order ... that would affect the state as a whole, that he would give us 48 hours of notice,” Gibson, R-Mapleton, said.

The Alliance for a Better Utah has criticized the bill as a “blatant power grab,” and Rep. Merrill Nelson also spoke against it Thursday as an unnecessary infringement on the governor’s authority.

The executive branch, with the governor as its head, is better suited than the Legislature to handle a crisis, he said.

“His office is one person, whereas we’re 104 people,” the Grantsville Republican added. “His office is more quick, it’s more nimble to respond to emergencies. Ours takes more time.”

But HB3005, Gibson noted, does allow the governor to make emergency decisions without notifying legislative leaders if necessary to prevent imminent loss of life. He argued none of the recent executive actions would have fallen into that category.

The House passed the bill 56-18. It now goes to the Senate.

— Bethany Rodgers

12:45 p.m.: KFC donates 100 meals to St. Mark’s Hospital

A KFC store in West Valley City recently donated 100 meals to staffers at St. Mark’s Hospital.

“The essential workers who are on the front lines…against COVID-19 are critical to the well-being of our communities,” a company news release stated. “KFC wanted to thank them for their tireless work over the past several weeks.”

Nationally, the fast food restaurant will donate a million pieces of chicken. Individual restaurants will give this to vulnerable populations in their communities.

— Zoi Walker

12:35 p.m.: 52 businesses get loans from Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City has distributed nearly $1 million to 52 businesses through its COVID-19 emergency loan program, the city announced Thursday.

In all, 727 businesses applied for loans, with a total request of nearly $13 million. Those that received the loans “were among the most deeply impacted by the COVID-19 crisis in Salt Lake City” and were chosen by a committee based on business type, financial need and other measures, according to the news release.

“While we are extremely proud to help more than 50 businesses during this difficult time, the reality is we weren’t able to fund 675 businesses that applied and still need help,” Department of Economic Development acting Director Ben Kolendar said in the release. “That’s what keeps me up at night as we continue to look for solutions for our business community.”

Eligible borrowers were required to have a physical location within city limits and 50 employees or less, according to city documents. Each company could receive a maximum $20,000 loan with a 0% interest rate for repayment.

Each award was reviewed by a committee to ensure the money is spent on critical needs and not on nonessentials such as land procurements or construction improvements.

The city also considered geographic equity in making its decisions and encouraged nonwhite and women-owned businesses to apply. Ultimately, 44% of the businesses that received city funding were owned by women and 21% by racially diverse owners. A quarter of the loans went to businesses located west of Interstate 15.

Here’s a list of the companies that received loans, according to city documents:

  • Tradition.

  • Cucina Deli.

  • Marble Cast Productions.

  • Les Madeleines.

  • Desert Dog Daycare.

  • Equipt Expedition Outfitters.

  • Brewvies.

  • Atelier LLC.

  • Mineral and Matter.

  • Lux Events.

  • Tulie Bakery.

  • Sun Trapp.

  • Cornerstone Aviation.

  • Ken Sanders’ Rare Books.

  • Vosen’s Bread Paradise.

  • Comfort Bowl.

  • Kyoto.

  • Butterfly Jac Salon.

  • Greek Souvlaki.

  • Western Rivers.

  • SugarHouse BBQ.

  • Este Pizza Sugarhouse.

  • Proper Brewing.

  • Challenger Industrial Supply.

  • Sierra Wholesale Supply.

  • Proper Cuisine.

  • Nomad Eatery.

  • Flourish Bakery.

  • Caputo’s.

  • King’s English.

  • Salt Lake Film Society.

  • Zaatar & Zayton.

  • Beehive Floral

  • Galaxy LLC.

  • Red Iguana.

  • Amour Cafe.

  • Urban Lounge.

  • Fisher Beer.

  • Sweet Lake.

  • Utah Arts Festival Foundation.

  • Utah Cultural Alliance.

  • Publik Coffee.

  • Urban Pioneer Foods.

  • Hayat’s Grill.

  • Relax Nails LLC.

  • Quarters Arcade Bar.

  • East Liberty Tap House.

  • Garage on Beck.

  • Blue Copper.

  • Toasters.

  • Hello Bulk.

  • Utah Arts Alliance.

— Taylor Stevens

12:20 p.m.: Salt Lake City meat company giving away $100 restaurant gift cards

Creminelli Fine Meats will give away 100 restaurant gift cards — worth $100 each — during its “For the Love of Food” campaign.

The Salt Lake City-based company bought the gift cards to help several city restaurants, including Pizza Nono, Feldman's Deli, Spice Kitchen, Tony Caputo's Market & Deli, Carmine's, Bento Truck, SLC Eatery, Honest Eatery and Les Madeleines.

In total, Creminelli is giving away $20,000 in gift cards to restaurants in Salt Lake City, New York and New Orleans.

To enter, visit www.creminellicontest.com.

— Zoi Walker

12:10 p.m.: You can still buy Girl Scout cookies online

Girl Scout troops in Utah were in the midst of their annual cookie sales last month, when they were forced to suspend table sales at grocery stores and other retail locations.

As a result, “thousands of cases of cookies remain with girls and in cupboards across our council,” officials with the Girl Scouts of Utah wrote in an email Thursday.

The organization doesn’t want Thin Mints, Samoas and Do-si-dos to go uneaten. They are encouraging consumers to order online and have them shipped to their homes. Or, better yet, donate boxes to hardworking heroes.

“We're taking donations and helping our girls and troops transfer cookies to first responders, health care workers, front-line workers, and our Gift of Caring partner, Utah Food Bank,” officials wrote. “Girls are working as a troop to choose their recipients and will be delivering these cookies once it is safe to do so.”

Customers can click here to make a cash gift or here to purchase cookies.

Cookie sales help pay for Girl Scout programs and scholarships.

— Kathy Stephenson

11:51 a.m.: Lawmakers call for government belt-tightening

House lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday calling on local government bodies — including cities, counties and state boards like the Utah Board of Education and Board of Regents — to avoid unnecessary spending with the rest of their 2020 budgets and to limit spending in the next budget year, beginning July 1.

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs, said the pandemic crisis has prompted an “economic crisis” as businesses have been forced to close and the stock market has plummeted. As a result, “we’re encouraging all of our agencies to be prepared for what is likely to be a much lower budget for next year,” he said.

The nonbinding resolution “is basically setting expectations,” Moss added, and does not include any teeth for ensuring local governments and state agencies comply.

Some municipal governments are already feeling the effects of the coronavirus, which has impacted the sales tax revenue they rely on.

West Jordan, Utah’s fourth largest city, is facing an $8 million budget shortfall because of the coronavirus and has begun the process of making staff cuts as a result. And Salt Lake County’s chief financial officer said recently that county revenues were projected to be down in 2020 to the tune of roughly $78.5 million.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, noted that many state agencies are already taking the advice to tighten their belts.

He said he hoped those agencies would “receive this for the intent, which is just a reminder for all of us to be careful.”

HJR301 received final passage in the Senate on Thursday evening.

— Taylor Stevens

10:44 a.m.: Utah’s first virtual session on Capitol Hill opens

During its first digital special session in history on Thursday, House Speaker Brad Wilson kicked off the Legislature’s remote meeting on COVID-19 by setting the goal of starting to reopen the state by the start of May.

Wilson said state lawmakers during the session will discuss a methodical transition as Utah begins to emerge from weeks of sheltering in place.

The Utah House unanimously approved a resolution offering support for Utah’s health care workers and other essential employees who are providing services to the public as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.

The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard whose father, former House Speaker and businessman Bob Garff, died of the coronavirus late last month.

Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, called the coronavirus a “lonely, isolating and mean virus” that has ravaged the world and caused “significant disruption to our Utah communities.” The resolution, she noted, indicates that “the governor and the Legislature are profoundly grateful for the Utahns who have chosen to stay home and stay safe and for those public servants who through this unprecedented modern pandemic have shown to be heroes and [to have] great courage on the front line.”

Ballard specifically called out health care workers and caregivers, assisted living, group home and hospice care providers, employees of the Utah Department of Public Safety and Utah Department of Corrections, emergency responders and law enforcement officers, as well as grocery store workers, food providers and more.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, a physician and Draper Democrat, expressed her support for the resolution and for those who have stayed home when possible “to help save lives.”

“And I also want to extend my gratitude to those who have had the courage to leave home and go to work in all these various capacities,” she added. “I think we have a new appreciation for what it means to be an essential worker and the greatly expanded importance and role for folks such as delivery drivers and grocery store clerks and people that are really, literally helping us survive during this pandemic.”

The resolution, HCR301, received final passage in the Senate later on Thursday with a unanimous vote. Afterward, lawmakers gave essential workers a thumbs up.

Lawmakers started the day, as usual, with a prayer and by stating the Pledge of Allegiance — but this time, they recited the pledge as an American flag waved on their computer screens. Wilson, the speaker, also described how the coronavirus has drastically altered the state landscape since lawmakers ended their general session last month.

When legislators gathered for the regular session in January, he noted that Bob Garff was sitting in the chamber to kick things off.

“This terrible pandemic and virus has taken him from us,” the Kaysville Republican said.

The House speaker said legislators during the special session will have to set policies and appropriate funds to deal with the fallout from COVID-19. “Utah needs your leadership now more than ever,” he told his colleagues.

— Taylor Stevens and Bethany Rodgers

6:50 a.m.: Another 24,000 Utahns filed for unemployment

The scary exponential bend of Utah’s job loss curve in recent weeks appeared to ease a little Thursday, but not by much.

Unemployment claims leapt for a fifth week in the pandemic, with 24,171 Utahns seeking jobless benefits, for what is now a total of at least 106,671 state residents reporting being thrown out of work since mid-March.

The same U.S. Department of Labor report Thursday reveals those idled Utah workers are among more than 22 million Americans who’ve now lost their jobs or been furloughed since the health crisis began.

That means roughly one in seven of all U.S. workers has sought emergency aid since the outbreak began hitting the country, stark evidence of its economic devastation.

Although still historically high, jobless claims in Utah for the week ending April 12 fell back some from the prior week, when a record 33,040 Utahns filed claims, many of them laid off abruptly from the state’s hospitality, retail and office sectors. The U.S. saw 5.25 million people file for unemployment.

The job losses in Utah and across the country have triggered billions of dollars in federal aid aimed at helping Americans to cope with the pandemic, not least in the form on a $600 stipend to be added weekly on top of state unemployment benefits.

And people are starting to receive their separate $1,200 stimulus payments.

— Tony Semerad