Two more Utahns die of coronavirus as Utah leaders name commission members to guide reopening of state’s economy

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert holds up the "Utah Leads Together Plan" while speaking during a press conference with legislative, community, and business leaders at the Utah State Capitol Friday, April 17, 2020, in the Salt Lake City. Utah is aiming to reopen restaurants and gyms and resume elective surgeries in early May under a plan to gradually reopen the economy that has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Herbert said Friday. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

As Utah’s COVID-19 cases continued to mount Saturday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed legislation passed during the recent special session establishing a framework for reopening the state’s economy once the pandemic eases. Two more deaths were recorded Saturday, bringing the state’s total to 25 for the number of residents whose lives were cut short by the virus.

The number of cases grew by 126, bringing the total to 2,931 cases.

SB3004, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, creates a commission that is charged with balancing economic concerns with public health while drafting “reasonable guidelines” under which health care providers could resume providing elective surgeries and procedures and restaurants could return to normal operations, albeit with modifications.

The Legislature passed the bill Friday over the objections of many Democratic members who viewed the new framework as biased toward a premature resumption of normal economic activity.

Upon signing the bill, Herbert said SB3004 underscores the importance of the Legislature's participation in the state's response to the coronavirus crisis.

"This bill formalizes [lawmakers'] role through the establishment of a commission, which will make recommendations on steps to incrementally reopen Utah’s economy in a way that protects public health and safety," the governor said Saturday. "I look forward to reviewing the commission’s recommendations, which will, in large measure, focus on implementation of the Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan, and work in concert with recommendations from the Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force.”

Utah Leads Together 2.0 is the latest version of Herbert’s plan, released Friday, for cushioning the drastic economic fallout from the pandemic.

The governor's appointments to the new 10-member Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission include: Gen. Jefferson Burton, as the designee of the Utah Department of Health; Brian Dunn, CEO of Steward Health care, representing the for-profit hospital system; Michael Good, CEO of the University of Utah Health System, representing the not-for-profit hospital system; Derek Miller, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce; Salt Lake City business leader Mark Bouchard, formerly a senior managing director with the real estate consulting firm CBRE.

Legislative leaders select four members and name the commission’s chairman, while the Utah Association of Counties selects one member. The Senate selected Hemmert and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, while the House had yet to name its two designees as of Saturday.

The commission is to present its proposed guidelines to Herbert by Wednesday. The governor will then have to either implement them or explain why he won’t by the end of the month.

Because they are taking place during a public health emergency, commission meetings are not required to be open to the public.

During debate on the bill, several House members took issue with the makeup of the commission, the quick timeline for the commission’s work and that their guidelines would step on efforts currently underway by the governor, who has already unveiled Utah Leads Together, his multi-step plan for guiding the state through the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, new numbers released by the Utah Department of Health suggest the rate of new infections appears to be stabilizing, neither dropping nor accelerating, and Salt Lake County remains the virus’s principal hotspot for Utah.

According to numbers released Saturday, Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19, accounting for nearly 30% of the state’s total caseload of 2,931. Nearly 600 of those patients have recovered.

The 126 new cases reported Saturday are in line with daily totals reported in recent days. The big majority, 91, were reported in Salt Lake County, followed by Utah County, 14, Wasatch County, 6 and Summit County, 5, with three more scattered around the state.

The number of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization increased by seven to 251, almost 9% of the total confirmed cases.

More than half the coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among Salt Lake County residents, including one of the two most recents deaths, a man over age 60, according to the Department of Health.

The other fatality was a woman, also older than 60, in Utah County who died in a hospital, but it was unknown if she had underlying health conditions.

The number of test results that were returned Saturday rose by 4,000 to nearly 60,000 since the pandemic started.

Developing ways to promote widespread testing, seen as a key part of getting the economy back on its feet, is among the new public health commission’s duties. The commission’s main charge is to identify “economic and health guidance levels” to be used for determining risk assessments for various parts of the state, demographic groups and specific industries.

Once the risks have fallen to an acceptable level, Utah’s economy may begin to awaken from its medically induced coma.