Robert Gehrke: Utah’s governor gets an earful from lawmakers upset by his coronavirus orders

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Gov. Gary Herbert has taken a lot of heat as the state drowns under the crushing wave of COVID.

Some of it has come from doctors and nurses who prodded him to act. Some has come from people like me, who criticized him for not moving soon enough to steer us away from the cliff we will be plummeting over in slow motion for the next several weeks.

But a lot of it has come from his own party, conservative legislators and vocal constituents who consider the governor’s limited actions to be “tyranny” as Rep. Kim Coleman described it, an affront to the Constitution that requires, as Rep. Phil Lyman has demanded, an immediate special session to repeal the governor’s health orders.

On Tuesday, the governor and his staff — although mostly his staff, led by Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, after Herbert had to leave early — met with the resistance.

The group, including Health Department Director Rich Saunders, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the unified command Jess Anderson and others, spent more than four hours with Republican House members, explaining the reality of the risk, and the reason for the response.

And, according to several who were present (speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a closed GOP caucus), Herbert’s crew spent some of the time getting beat up by the more strident members for … well, for using the power of government to protect Utahns’ lives.

Lyman, I was told, was among the most antagonistic, asserting none of the power the governor was exercising was constitutional and challenging the administration to return Utah to a constitutional republic.

Rep. Brady Brammer was likewise critical of the public health orders and took a swipe at Cox for that state where he went to law school (Virginia) and lectured him about the limitations in Utah’s Constitution.

Coleman was among those who challenged the governor’s authority — a defiance that I’m sure thrills a large segment of her loudest constituents.

They used it, one lawmaker told me, “as an opportunity to pontificate about the Constitution and fears of the nanny state.”

At one point, I was told, Cox shot back: “I’m really disappointed none of you are asking questions about how we can save more lives.”

He later tempered his remarks, saying that everyone is on the same side.

It wasn’t all confrontation, though. Legislators were given information about the severity of the disease, why it is definitely not “just the flu,” a projected timeframe for vaccines, the benefits of the mask mandate, and answered questions about resuming school sports.

After the meeting, the governor’s team spent nearly three more hours talking with legislative Democrats.

I appreciate the concept and benefits of dividing power between the branches of government. Normally it works great. And for those abnormal times, the Legislature can call itself into a special session. Their last special session was Aug 20. Since then we’ve had more than 114,000 cases and 360 deaths. The point being that legislative bodies are ill-suited to respond to a pandemic that is rapidly changing without moving to a full-time Legislature.

And I’m not sure we would benefit by giving the Lymans of the Legislature any more sway over our coronavirus response.

Lyman attended the meeting with the governor’s staff remotely because it was a long drive and he didn’t want to have to wear a mask at the Capitol, according to his new podcast (that’s right, 2020 can get worse).

Here are some other highlights from his new program:

He praised the organizers of a Halloween Party in Utah County that violated health orders and drew thousands of young people amid sky-high infection rates. “My hat’s off to them,” he said, as was his mask, one would assume. “If the government says you can’t gather and the Constitution says you have a right to assemble, under the constitutional guise, you assemble.”

What kind of conditions — overflowing hospitals, skyrocketing cases, mounting death tolls — would warrant unilateral action by the governor? “There is no threshold. I don’t care how bad it is.”

“[Tuberculosis] kills a lot of people and pneumonia kills a lot of people,” he said. ”I’m not downplaying COVID.”

He was downplaying COVID.

Tuberculosis, pneumonia and influenza combined killed 123 Utahns a year according to the most recent data. We’ll likely reach 1,000 COVID deaths in the state by the end of this year — and that is with all of these attempts to slow its spread.

Separately, he asserted that doctors and hospitals are responsible for health care and should manage the crisis on their own, without government intervention.

Legislators like Lyman should take Intermountain Healthcare CEO Marc Harrison up on an offer he extended Tuesday: “If there are elected officials that have any doubt about what is going on, please contact us. We will arrange a visit with our caregivers and the ICU so you can see exactly what is going on in them.”

If that doesn’t work, they should go talk to the families of the dead.

Credit should be given to House leaders for keeping the vocal members of their body in check.

But the point of this is that, as lacking as the governor’s actions may seem, he is under intense pressure from legislators and their loudest constituents to do much less, even nothing, and Herbert at least tries to strike a balance.

So it’s important that the rest of us are heard, as well — not by protesting in front of his home or Dr. Dunn’s home (leave that to the radicals), but by contacting the governor and your legislator. Tell them you want the state to stick to its guns. And if the legislators want to call a special session and wipe out the safeguards the governor has put in place, they can own the deaths that result.