Utah governor’s latest COVID-19 plan focused on ‘full-blown economic recovery’

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert released new updates Wednesday to the state’s plan for navigating the pandemic, this time focused on “full-blown” economic recovery.

This fourth version of what the Republican governor and others call “Utah Leads Together” adds detail to strategies on government spending and policy to heal the state’s economy, get thousands of idled workers back on the job and invest in large public projects — while also addressing social inequities laid bare by the crisis.

The economic downturn in Utah, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, “has been deep, but not nearly as deep as it could have been,” Herbert said Wednesday.

“We’re in much better shape than we thought,” he said at the state’s weekly COVID-19 briefing. Although, he added, “that doesn’t make it any easier for those of the thousands of people who’ve had disruption in their lives or are out of work on unemployment.”

Coming less that a month after its prior version, Utah Leads Together 4.0 also represents a shift away, officials said, from the health-based mantra of “flattening the curve” toward the idea of “protecting the hive” — with a heightened focus on reengaging in the economy responsibly while still protecting groups most at risk from the virus.

And with its large government infusions of cash into the economy, the plan carries echoes of the post-Depression New Deal, calling for large-scale public works and jobs programs, with a notable bent toward technology.

Herbert, business and legislative leaders said the plan lays a foundation for continuing to guard Utahns’ health in tandem with their livelihoods, while also helping to lift the state’s economy out of a rapidly emerging recession.

Key to the plan, the governor said, is “the imperative that Utahns continue to take personal responsibility” in battling the coronavirus — notably in terms of hygiene, like hand-washing and wearing face masks. “If we do so,” said Herbert, “we’re really going to be able to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and open the economy quicker.”

Its release comes as the virus is continuing to spread, leading to a rising number of active infections and hospitalizations. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said Wednesday the risk of exposure to COVID-19 “is higher than ever in Utah.”

And while the new plan sets out strategies for three economic phases — to be carried out over the next 100, 250 and 500 days — all of it has to be undergirded, Dunn said, by widespread and steadfast use of protective face coverings.

“Wearing a mask shows you care about your community,” she said, “and you want to limit the spread of the virus.”

The three phases

As part of the next 100 days, the Salt Lake Chamber is launching a new “Stay Safe to Stay Open” campaign to build consumer confidence by calling on Utah business owners to pledge they will used best practices to ensure health and safety. In exchange, they’ll receive authorized signage reassuring customers to that effect, said Derek Miller, the chamber’s president and CEO.

Also crucial to phase one, Miller said, is getting an estimated 61,000 Utah workers who have been temporarily furloughed back on the job.

“Helping businesses to reopen safely is the best way to get people back to work,” he said. “Since the vast majority of those currently unemployed are furloughed employees, our focus is on making sure those jobs survive and those employees can return quickly.”

The state plans to boost worker retraining and match laid-off residents with thousands of new job openings, according to Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of Economic Development Corporation of Utah. Officials foresee offering new apprenticeship programs and retraining education vouchers, targeted to industries in greatest need.

Within 250 days, Foxley said, Utah will pivot to growing the economy by borrowing against its stellar credit rating for spending on large-scale infrastructure projects. These include highways and mass transit lines, improving dam safety and building more sewer treatment plants and electric vehicle charging stations across the state.

The state must also widen access to broadband internet, she said, to reach more homes and businesses, especially for the disadvantaged.

State officials hope to revitalize Utah’s health care sector, which continues to reel financially from suspending elective medical care in advance of the pandemic. That part of the plan calls for reminding Utahns to resume regular vaccinations, pregnancy and infant health checkups and other routine and preventative care.

Foxley said that overall, the 4.0 version seek to reflect that the state’s “collective attention is much more focused on some of the inequities in our country and in our own community” as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We know that revitalization and recovering to better must include more economic inclusion and equity,” she said.

The plan’s authors — drawn from government, academics and the private sector — also recommend public funding for new and more energy-efficient housing construction, Foxley said, potentially through a big-ticket borrowing package.

The hope there, she said, is to not only spur new jobs but also ease what officials say is a deficit of up to 50,000 dwellings in Utah affordable to those making average wages.

Foxley said residents could also expect “a contemporary version of the [New Deal-era] Civilian Conservation Corps” to improve the state’s outdoor recreation sites, state parks, trailheads and campgrounds.

On a 500-day horizon, she said, Utah will seek to retool its economy to align with worldwide trends in automation, machine learning, augmented reality and cybersecurity. It will also try to apply lessons from the pandemic on how to strengthen supply chains and remote working and guarantee a more secure and reliable food stocks.

Is the money there?

The new plan’s release comes a day before Utah lawmakers convene in another pandemic-triggered special session, this time to address immense shortfalls in state tax collections due to COVID-19.

New revenue projections released Tuesday indicate deficits of $93 million in one-time funding and $757 million ongoing for the current and coming budget years.

But leaders on Capitol Hill said Wednesday they remained optimistic and are “looking at options” that would only reduce the state budget by 1.7%, after using big portions of the state’s so-called “rainy day” accounts for its general fund, education and Medicaid budgets.

“The choices we’re making about cuts to the budget are data-driven and are intended to help the state move into a rapid economic recovery,” House Speaker Brad Wilson said.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams reassured Utahns that key portions of the budget would be spared deep reductions, in spite of the dramatic shortfalls.

“Social services will not be cut,” Adams vowed, and instead, those programs will see a 6% increase. Spending on public education, he said, will rise about 2% in the new budget and the amount Utah devotes to each student will go up 1.8%.

“We can get through this together,” Adams said, noting that other budgets may be cut by between 2% and 3% — and the state will temporarily halt some capital construction projects.

“We prepared for this day extremely well,” Adams said.

Wilson also stressed the use of billions in federal aid money, which must be used before the end of the year.

To that end, he said, the state will deploy some $50 million in economic recovery grants for hard-hit businesses to encourage their customers to reengage.

“We believe it’s important to get this money working in the Utah economy,” Wilson said, “and getting it working quickly.”