Robert Gehrke: The Legislature can declare an end to COVID, but hundreds of thousands of our neighbors have long weeks ahead

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

It’s hard to overstate how far we have come in the fight against COVID in just a few short months.

Since early January, the number of new infections has fallen by more than 85%. Hospitalizations have followed suit, giving overwhelmed doctors and nurses some breathing room. Rather than having more than 100 people dying from the disease in a week, the death toll is down to a couple per day.

Most importantly, vaccination is churning along, on Friday surpassing 200,000 life-saving doses administered for the week.

All of these are very positive trends and reason to hope that it won’t matter that the Legislature is rescinding mandatory mask use starting Saturday.

But we are living in two worlds right now. If you’re middle-aged or older and white (like me), there’s a very good chance you’ve had at least one dose of the vaccine and the measure of comfort that comes with it.

There are, however, more than 2.2 million Utahns — two-thirds of the population — that haven’t had an opportunity to be vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, that population is more likely to be younger and from a minority community.

Statewide, four out of five Utahns under the age of 30 (including those under the age of 16, who are not yet eligible) have not received a first dose, and roughly six out of seven Black, Hispanic or Latino residents have not yet been able to get a shot.

And we are continuing to see an increase in the variant strains of the virus that are more deadly and more contagious.

In early February, the UK variant accounted for 1% of COVID cases, but by the end of March that variant constituted 30% of cases, according to Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at the University of Utah.

That is why the Legislature’s decision to ignore the advice of health professionals and prematurely and arbitrarily lift the mask mandate is so short-sighted, putting politics before public health, and why it’s even more disappointing that county commissions and councils around the state — but particularly in Salt Lake, Weber and Davis counties — lacked the courage to lead.

Masks are a mild inconvenience, sure, but study after study has concluded that they are effective in reducing the spread of the virus and to keep the wearer and those around them safe. On top of that, they have been shown to help the economy by bolstering confidence and putting customers at ease.

Business owners pleaded for an extension to protect their employees who haven’t been vaccinated. But businesses can still require masks, right?

“The state mandate made it easy for me to say, I’m sorry, sir, we know where you’re coming from. We’re just a small business adhering to state law,” said Matt Caputo, CEO of Caputo’s Deli. “I’d like to see these public officials … explain this policy to an angry, oftentimes very large man, eight to nine times a day who think we’re threatening their freedom. It’s leaving us on our own.”

That scenario could have, to a large extent, been avoided.

With just a few more weeks, we could have administered perhaps a million more shots, alleviating the risk for hundreds of thousands of Utahns. Instead of extending a hand to help people climb the last few rungs of the ladder to get to the safety many of us now enjoy, we lit the ladder on fire.

Best of luck. You’re on your own now.

The indifference and abject cowardice makes more remarkable the decision by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to stand up for her constituents when nobody else would.

“This is not a new circumstance for Salt Lake City to be standing in a different health reality than other cities and with a different approach to protecting residents,” she told me in an interview. “Our city has been harder hit than most of the cities for most of the pandemic and we’re continuing to look at our data.”

As she correctly noted, while better than half of the residents in several of Salt Lake County’s east side ZIP codes have had at least one shot, on the west side, the percentages are often between 20% and 25%.

She contends her footing is legally sound — that the public health orders the Legislature restricted are different than the emergency orders she issued to save lives.

Whether she’s right or not doesn’t matter. She went all in on it, at the very least buying precious time — time for people on the west side, time for those workers in those restaurants and bars and grocery stores, time for thousands of more people to have whatever level of protection a mask gives until they finally can get their shot.

She will likely pay a price for it. The Utah Legislature is often vengeful, and she recognizes that possibility.

“If it comes it comes,” she said. “Our city attorney carefully reviewed the Legislature’s endgame law, along with the emergency powers the mayor holds, and I’m confident with my decision.”

In the absence of a mask requirement, it will be up to each of us to voluntarily do our part and demonstrate the compassion for our neighbors that so many of our elected officials could not muster.