Utah Legislature eyes May 1 for reopening economy as the coronavirus wears on

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

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State lawmakers convened a historic, all-virtual special session on the COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, with an eye toward the date Utah can start emerging from quarantine — and they’re pitching May 1 as a target.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said legislators will create guidelines to start reawakening the state's slumbering economy "carefully, methodically, as quickly as possible and responsibly by the end of the month."

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said during her daily news conference that Wilson’s goal of reopening the economy gradually by the end of the month “is a great goal to have” but needs to be done based on data.

One of the bills considered would create a commission assigned to craft such a framework, with three different “economic and health guidance levels” that the state could use for a phased reopening. The commission would have to present these proposed guidelines to Gov. Gary Herbert in a matter of days, by April 22. He then would have to either implement them or explain why he didn’t by month’s end.

SB3004, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, requires the commission to balance the economy with public health and to include “reasonable guidelines” under which health care providers could once again offer elective surgeries and procedures and restaurants could resume normal operations, though perhaps with some modifications.

Meetings of the commission that take place during a public health emergency would not be open to the public, the bill states.

The commission — made up of a state health department representative, four members appointed by the governor and four more members, including the chair, appointed by legislative leaders — would consider health guidance and data as it explores loosening restrictions in particular geographic regions or industries, Wilson said.

“There will be data that we’ll be watching daily to determine what the right levels of intensity are in terms of social distancing,” the House speaker told reporters Thursday afternoon. “As we start to slowly dial the knobs of the economy back on, we’ll be doing it with an eye to all of that information.”

The Senate approved SB3004 with a 23-6 vote on Thursday, with five of the six dissenting votes coming from Democrats in the chamber.

An initial version of the bill included a provision that would prohibit local governments from enacting any ordinances or issuing any orders that are more restrictive than or contrary to a recommendation made by the commission and adopted by the governor.

The substitute bill passed by the Senate addresses concerns raised over that condition, Hemmert said, clarifying that the governor could choose to create exemptions for local orders and adding an additional member to the commission from the Utah Association of Counties. The updated version also makes clear that the commission should be "communicating with local health departments and local governments as it’s crafting [its] plan.”

Local stay-at-home orders currently in place in a number of the state’s more populous communities — including Salt Lake, Summit, Davis, Weber, Morgan and Tooele counties — are more stringent than the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive issued late last month. Utah County is the one community along the Wasatch Front that has yet to issue a stay-home mandate, with local leaders saying they do not see the need for one.

During debate on the bill, Sen. Gene Davis, who voted against the bill, raised concern that it was putting “the fiscal health of the state ahead of the health of the community health of local communities."

Hemmert dismissed that characterization, noting that the bill explicitly asks the commission to balance both.

“I think heretofore public health has been the only consideration, which has arguably been appropriate as we’ve been dealing with this pandemic,” he said, adding that that calculation needs to shift as projections show the state’s health care system won’t be overburdened by COVID-19 patients.

“And given that, it’s probably appropriate for an organization, a commission, to look at ways on how to balance the economic impact and look at ways on how to start easing back some of the restrictions,” he said. "It’s not meant to give economic outcomes a higher weight but it is time to give them some weight.”

Utah reported 2,683 cases of coronavirus as of Thursday, 141 more than a day earlier — the biggest increase in 11 days. Twenty-one people have died in the state from COVID-19.

Pandemic power struggle

In his opening speech to lawmakers, in which Wilson outlined the May 1 goal, he also gave a nod to the historic nature of the special session. This is the first time Utah legislators have convened remotely and the first time they have called themselves into session, a task usually handled by the governor and only allowed under a constitutional amendment approved two years ago.

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.

Speaking by teleconference to his 74 colleagues, Wilson, from the House speaker’s dais, said Utah is likely “the first in the nation to be calling ourselves into special session virtually.” But the Kaysville Republican said he expects this will be just the first of several special sessions lawmakers will have to hold in coming months to deal with the fallout from COVID-19.

Among the bills the Utah House approved Thursday morning was a measure that would require the governor to consult with legislative leaders at least 48 hours before declaring an emergency or issuing executive order. HB3005 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 that in several recent cases, legislative leaders learned about a forthcoming executive order mere minutes before it went out publicly.

"I think 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 said. "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’ve fallen into that category.

The House passed the bill 56-18. Later in the day, Senate leaders said they were working with the Governor’s Office on revisions to the bill and delayed putting it to a vote.

Anna Lenhardt, communications director in the governor’s office, said in a statement Thursday that the bill “appears to be an attempt on the part of the Legislature to formalize communications and notifications with regards to certain emergency actions on the part of the governor.”

“We have concerns with elements of the bill and its impact on executive branch operations,” she added. “We are working in good faith with legislative leadership to address those now.”

In recent weeks, Herbert has issued executive orders closing down restaurant dining rooms and barring landlords from evicting people affected by the virus. His “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive encourages Utahns to shelter in place and refrain from going out except for essential activities.

Utah is one of only eight states that has not issued a stay-home order and the governor has come under some criticism by those who say he hasn’t gone far enough. Some lawmakers and political candidates, however — notably governor’s hopeful and former House Speaker Greg Hughes and his running mate Victor Iverson — have complained that Herbert’s directive was an unnecessary overreach.