Rural county leaders in Utah call for a ‘return to normalcy’ amid coronavirus outbreak

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert, right, is joined by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as they speak at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 13, 2020, where he ordered a "soft closure" of all Utah K-12 schools for the next two weeks, effective Monday, in the ongoing effort to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Leaders from seven Utah counties sent a letter earlier this week to Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov Spencer Cox urging a “return to normalcy” amid a state response to the coronavirus outbreak they say is causing panic and disrupting the economy.

The letter, signed by 17 county commissioners mostly from the southwestern part of the state and by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, argues that the severity of the virus “absolutely and in no way supports the levels of concern that have been raised and the panic that has spread.”

“As of [Monday], the total deaths attributed to the virus in the United States stands at ninety,” the letter states. “Not nine hundred, not nine thousand, not ninety thousand. Ninety. This number is sure to rise in the near future but we need to keep our wits about us.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the Utah Department of Health reported 68 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state and zero deaths as a result of the illness. Nationwide, the virus had sickened more than 10,800 people and killed 168. Thousands have died globally.

But while the impact of the pandemic continues to spread in the state and throughout the world, these county leaders see more room for hope than fear. They note that many respiratory viruses similar to COVID-19 taper off in March and April and argue that China and South Korea are seeing a decline in cases that could be attributed more to the “natural life cycle of this respiratory virus” than to containment measures.

“I think a week from now people are going to say, ’What were we thinking with that coronavirus thing?’” said Lyman, a former San Juan County commissioner.

Most health officials, however, say it’s a false hope to think cases will start declining in warmer weather with no data to support that scenario. And the Chinese government itself credits the slowdown to its aggressive containment approach, which has included strict quarantine and travel restrictions that have meant the loss of personal liberties for its citizens.

In South Korea, the country’s success at “flattening the curve” — or slowing the spread – is attributed to its implementation of a massive-scale system for testing for the virus. Testing in the United States has, by contrast, lagged far behind.

The call from Utah county leaders to “stem the tide” of mounting fear associated with the pandemic comes amid a nationwide economic downturn and as the state’s tourism and hospitality industries take a particularly hard financial hit.

As part of a social distancing effort to reduce the impact of the virus on the state’s health care systems, the governor has temporarily closed K-12 schools and ordered Utah restaurants, bars and food service establishments to close all dine-in operations.

Herbert has also banned gatherings of more than 10 people, restricted all but the most critical visits to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities and recommended that residents over 60 and those with compromised immune systems avoid contact with others to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m convinced this will save many lives,” the governor said Monday in announcing those moves.

Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist, who signed on to the letter, acknowledged that “the disease is real, the spreading is rapid if not contained” and that the coronavirus “therefore deserves attention.”

But he said he wished counties had been “left to make more of their own decisions regarding the severity of the disease in their county and the impact it would have on their economy.”

Kane County Commissioner Andy Gant echoed those concerns, noting that rural counties are experiencing the effects of the virus and state efforts to contain it differently than urban communities.

“We get the same mandate as everybody else in the state but the scenarios are not similar,” he said. “If they were to say, ‘You can’t have a gathering in a hardware store of so many people’ — and this is hypothetical but these rules roll out so fast. We have two places to get goods in Kane County: the hardware store and the grocery store.”

Gant said Kane County leaders weren’t involved in drafting the language in the letter and said it did not fully align with his own thinking. His primary objective for signing on to the missive, he said, was a hope that it would facilitate increased dialogue between rural communities and the state.

“The only real request that I would have is that the state health department do everything they have time and capacity to do to reach out to our local health departments,” he said. “And we will absolutely defer. We’re not going to push back in any way if they will have a good dialogue.”

Lyman told The Tribune in an interview that he sees the state’s actions to contain the coronavirus as part of an “urban-rural disconnect.”

“This is destroying economies, and I’m sure that the Wasatch Front will rebound quickly, but some of these rural towns have a really hard time, you know, replacing an employer,” he said, arguing that the restaurant shutdown, for example, should have come as advice rather than an “edict.”

“People have got to get back to work,” he added. “They have bills to pay and things that need to be done.”

Several county commissioners who signed on to the letter and were reached by phone on Thursday denied requests for comment. Some said they didn’t trust The Salt Lake Tribune to quote them accurately.

Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens, who several signatories said was the primary author of the letter, did not return a request for comment on Thursday.

Herbert’s office said in a statement that the governor, Cox and “our entire team are working tirelessly to both implement the recommendations of the president of the United States to help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus, and to mitigate the challenges that will come to our state’s economy as a result of the global recession caused by the global pandemic."

“As we always do, we will ensure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table as we navigate these challenging times,” the statement concluded.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Zak Podmore contributed to this report