Utah governor advised to start lifting economic restrictions, no formal timetable set

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is being urged by a newly created state commission to begin lifting health restrictions related to COVD-19.

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Utah’s new panel assigned to balance economic concerns with public health has advised Gov. Gary Herbert to lower the state’s perceived risk from COVID-19 and begin removing restrictions on businesses.

That could mean a resumption of dining in at restaurants, a return to nonessential retail shopping and even some limited public gatherings, though all with social distancing, face masks and other public-health steps.

The panel also wants the state to help businesses with the costs of masks and other protective equipment and for lawmakers to consider tweaking state liquor laws so they match the new normal on health guidelines.

In an announcement of its move Wednesday, the commission said it also specifically urged the resumption of time-sensitive elective surgeries at area hospitals — which Herbert announced Wednesday — though it said the governor also needed to carefully maintain hospital capacity for high-risk groups.

After meeting privately Monday and Tuesday, the newly created Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission has adopted industry-by-industry guidelines for how Utah would move from “high” to “moderate” risk. State law gives the governor until April 30 to decide if he will go along, revise the recommendations or reject them outright. If he rejects them, by law he has to explain why.

It is unlikely that Herbert would reject the recommendations since they closely match his own template for moving Utah through urgent, stabilized and recovery phases of the health crisis. What’s more, the commission is co-led by Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, who the governor had previously named to lead the state’s coronavirus response.

Burton said in a statement Wednesday that the panel “has given careful and thoughtful consideration to the data points and [its members] have provided their best recommendations based on the positive trends we are seeing with public health.”

Due to the ongoing emergency, the commission’s meetings are not required to be open to the public. But the group of elected leaders, physicians, public health officials, hospital administrators and business executives has reportedly given significant weight to a recent drop in transmission rates of the coronavirus in Utah. That transmission rate — the number of people who contract the virus from an infected person — now hovers a little bit above one.

“I wholeheartedly believe that this action can be taken because the citizens of the state of Utah are doing a great job with hygiene and social distancing in order to flatten the curve of the spread of the virus,” Burton said in his statement.

It was unclear from the commission’s announcement if the recommendations came with a timeline for when the openings might unfold. Herbert’s staff did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

The panel’s guidelines on industry practices closely follow the contours of Herbert’s own color-coded Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan and detail similar health steps necessary in various business settings as the state goes from “red” to “orange” in terms of perceived danger of infection.

In addition to dining in at restaurants, the Utah Leads Together plan calls for resumption of commerce in a wide range of industries once Utah reaches the “orange” risk level.

Those would include nonessential retail; hospitality and tourism; some public events; and personal services such as barbers and hair stylists — though with strict and industry-tailored rules on face masks, social distancing for customers and employees, health screening and other limitations.

The commission is also asking state officials to “make a concerted effort” to help businesses with the costs of required personal protective equipment and other health supplies as well as tools for screening the health of employees. It says the Utah Legislature should consider altering the state’s strict liquor laws, to ensure they match recommended guidelines.

The commission says the state’s stance on COVID-19 measures should be reviewed at least every two weeks.

“The purpose of the commission is to have someone working proactively on a safe way to reopen parts of our economy,” Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, a panel member, said Wednesday in an interview.

“And, you know, that's whether we actually open or not,” the Orem Republican said. “That's not the commission's role. That's the governor's role.”

“But this level of economic activity and social distancing we’re living in is not sustainable,” he continued. “We need to find a balance of a sustainable level of both economic activity and social distancing that keeps safe those who need to be kept safe, but also allows others to function.”

Hemmert, who also co-sponsored the bill creating the commission, said Utah “is on a positive trajectory” and " ready for this next phase.”

In addition to Hemmert and Burton, commission members include Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper; Micheal Good, physician and CEO of the University of Utah Health System; Brian Dunn, CEO of Steward Healthcare; Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber; Steve Starks, CEO of Larry H. Miller Group, (which includes the Utah Jazz, Vivint Arena and Megaplex Theatres); Salt Lake City real estate executive Mark Bouchard; and Brandy Grace, COO of Utah Association of Counties.

During debate on that bill, SB3004, handfuls of lawmakers in the House and Senate took exception to the makeup of the commission and a quick timeline for its work. Several opponents of the bill on Capitol Hill declined to comment Wednesday, saying they needed more time to absorb the panel’s recommendations.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn and Micheal Good, CEO of the University of Utah Health System, have noted in recent days that the rate of how many people get infected from each person diagnosed with COVID-19 has declined below one and is now hovering between 1.1 and 1.2 people.

Good, who is also a member of the commission, said Monday that after weeks of social distancing in Utah, the COVID-19 “reproduction number” had shown signs those steps are making a difference.

“Thanks to so many,” he said, “we have flattened the curve in Utah.”

Hemmert said the recommendations "were based on actual real-time data,” and added that the state’s testing capacity per-capita for the virus ranked among the highest in the country.

“Utah is in a very unique position,” he said. “We have tons of data that frankly, no one else has."