State legislators to consider limiting local stay-home orders during coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A sign on a closed business between 100 South and 200 South Main Street Salt Lake City on Monday, March 23, 2020.

Utah lawmakers are looking at limiting the power of local governments to issue stay-home orders, potentially weakening restrictions already instituted by urban counties desperate to contain the coronavirus.

The idea of overriding local stay-home orders appears in a lengthy list of priorities crafted by legislative attorneys and researchers for state lawmakers, who are preparing for a special session on the COVID-19 outbreak and its fallout.

Senate President Stuart Adams on Wednesday confirmed that lawmakers want to do something about these local orders, out of concern about a lack of consistency from one county to another.

“What I’m hearing from constituents right now is that there’s a fairly significant degree of confusion,” the Layton Republican said.

For instance, Adams said, residents in counties with a stay-home order are feeling nervous about traveling to work in counties without these restrictions. Lawmakers haven’t yet landed on a specific solution for smoothing out rules across different counties, but Adams said they’ll likely talk about "whether they should be statewide policies and practices.”

Stay-home orders are in effect in the densely populated Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties, as well as in smaller Summit, Wasatch and Morgan. Utah County is the exception along the Wasatch Front, with local leaders saying they do not see the need for a stay-home order.

Utah is one of eight states without a statewide stay-home order.

While leaders in the more populous parts of the state have pressed Gov. Gary Herbert to impose a statewide decree, he has instead opted for “Stay Home, Stay Safe” recommendations with no criminal penalties for offenders and has given local governments the ability to implement more stringent measures as they see fit.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who issued a citywide stay-at-home order shortly after Herbert announced his new guidance last month, said in a statement Wednesday night that such ability should remain with local leaders.

“The power of city and county elected officials to act in the interest of local residents during times of emergency is a power the state granted to us,” she said in a statement. “That authority should remain with the local officials elected by their residents to make these decisions on their city or county’s behalf.”

The city’s order was later superseded by Salt Lake County’s mandate.

Leaders in several other communities that have issued stay-home orders did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon about possible efforts to weaken their authority.

Adams said lawmakers will probably hold several special sessions in coming months to deal with issues arising from the pandemic. The first is expected to take place toward the end of next week and could span a couple of days, he said.

While the governor typically announces a special session, Adams says he anticipates lawmakers will exercise their new authority to call themselves into session during a time of emergency. Utah voters in 2018 granted the Legislature this ability, which has so far gone unused.

In addition to addressing local health orders, lawmakers will also have to reshape the state budget, torn apart by the economic turmoil from COVID-19, according to Adams.

A 13-page document of coronavirus-related action items compiled by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel separates priorities into four categories — beginning with urgent issues that might warrant inclusion in a special session and continuing with ideas that merit consideration over the longer haul.

The issue of local shelter-in-place mandates is urgent, according to the document, which suggests that legislators could repeal or limit the authority of counties or local health departments to enact the orders. Alternatively, lawmakers could codify stay-home regulations that county leaders could then opt into.

Abby Osborne, chief of staff for the Utah House of Representatives, said this document is outdated and that lawmakers are currently working from a different version. She said she was not able to share the updated list.

The version obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune mentions the possibility of requiring a totally by-mail election and addressing the challenges candidates have faced in collecting enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot. Adams said legislators don’t appear to have an appetite for changing election dates or tampering with the state’s signature-gathering rules beyond the governor’s executive order allowing these to be collected by email.

Other urgent action items could involve establishing a medical bank for personal protective equipment, changing certain tax deadlines and temporarily barring evictions and foreclosures for commercial and residential properties.

Adams expressed support for providing targeted assistance to property owners and renters affected by the pandemic.

“Surely people should pay their rent if they have unemployment insurance coming in,” he said. “But it’s those people who have fallen through the cracks. ... I think if they can’t pay the rent because they’ve fallen through those cracks, we probably need to take care of them, in addition to businesses that have been forced to close.”

Help could also be on the way for struggling businesses, with the priority list including ideas for providing emergency loans or grants, assisting child-care centers, and deferring payment of the tax on hotel and motel stays to help these establishments make rent and payroll.

Other possible action items include:

  • Relaxing work-search requirements for jobless benefits and other forms of public aid and suspending the waiting week for unemployment assistance;

  • Allowing more people to qualify for child-care subsidies, with a focus on helping essential workers;

  • Establishing some legislative oversight over the governor’s COVID-19 task force and the state’s broader emergency response;

  • Allowing local school boards to meet remotely by adjusting the state’s open meetings law;

  • Safeguarding the salaries of school bus drivers, paraeducators and hourly staff at schools by requiring districts to continue paying their employees at a normal rate if classes are canceled because of the pandemic;

  • Extending the validity of driver licenses so people don’t have to renew them in-person;

  • Expanding telework for state employees;

  • Providing for “fix-it” tickets for expired vehicle registration due to coronavirus-related issues.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.