Most Republicans in the race for Utah governor say they support Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision not to issue a stay-at-home mandate to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But they’re worried the state hasn’t done enough to revitalize the economy and get people back to work once it’s run its course.
The Beehive State is one of just eight holdouts nationwide that has so far resisted a statewide order, even as the United States’ top infectious disease specialist has said residents nationwide should shelter in place and amid pressure locally from public officials in more populous communities who want to see stricter guidance from the state.
Of the GOP candidates interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune, only Jan Garbett came out in support of a statewide stay-at-home order, noting that she was “extremely disappointed” in what she characterized as a slow response to the coronavirus from current leadership.
The other gubernatorial hopefuls say that if they were in charge, they’d forge a path similar to the one Herbert has laid out, which provides guidance to the state at large about social distancing while allowing local communities to take a more aggressive approach to prevention.
“I’m a person who believes the best government is local and close to the people, so I think allowing Salt Lake City to do something different” from rural cities “makes good sense,” said Provo businessman Jeff Burningham.
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton struck a similar tone, saying the state has done a “good job” in slowing the spread of the coronavirus with the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” guidance but that she supports more stringent efforts where officials deem them necessary.
“If local communities feel that they need to have more stringent measures, I totally support that,” she said. “We can rely on our local officials and health department directors to make that call if need be.”
The local authority that the candidates praise as the correct approach may be up for debate at an upcoming special session of the Legislature. Overriding or paring back the power of local governments to issue stay-at-home orders appears on a list of urgent priorities for lawmakers to consider, according to a document obtained by The Tribune.
Salt Lake County is one of several communities that has issued a stay-at-home mandate. Similar requirements are also in effect in Davis, Weber and Tooele counties, as well as in smaller Summit, Wasatch and Morgan. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has called for a statewide stay-at-home order, arguing the novel virus does not recognize county boundaries and could easily overwhelm health care facilities in Utah’s population center.
Rural lawmakers, meanwhile, have been more resistant to crafting stay-at-home orders and argue that a blanket mandate from the state to stop the spread of the coronavirus would hit differently in their jurisdictions than in denser communities.
Gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox joked that his rural hometown of Fairview in Sanpete County has been social distancing for more than 100 years. And while he’s not in favor of a stay-at-home mandate at this time, he noted that the virus “doesn’t care where you live.”
“It is important that everyone take this seriously,” said Cox, who heads the state’s coronavirus task force. “But we do work closely with local governments and having local governments involved in decision-making is actually better for the people, and they’re much more likely to follow that guidance if we’re taking those unique circumstances into consideration.”
Cox said there are signs the governor’s current guidance is helping flatten the curve but added that there could be a need for different enforcement measures “if people aren’t responding and following the directive.” Leaders continue to look at the latest data to make those decisions, he said.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman said in a statement that the state can get results without a “one-size-fits-all approach.” A measure that’s necessary in a state like New York isn’t the same as what’s needed in a place like Utah, he argued, which has the nation’s “youngest and healthiest population.”
Former House Speaker Greg Hughes also raised the possibility that someone could unknowingly violate an order and be slapped with a class B misdemeanor. A directive is a better educational tool, he said.
“Where the governor has looked at directives rather than orders, I think it’s been smart,” he said. “It’s not getting us in an area where you’re committing a crime.”
Garbett’s running mate, Joseph Jarvis, a retired physician and health care reformer who founded the Utah Health Policy Project, described the administration’s response as “a day late and a dollar short” and called for a “more stringent” approach on the state level.
Stronger economic response?
While praising Herbert for stopping short of a statewide stay-at-home order, several of the candidates came out swinging against his administration’s economic response. They argue that the current leadership hasn’t done enough or acted quickly enough to help businesses and get Utahns back to work once the coronavirus has run its course.
Herbert’s three-stage plan for rebuilding Utah’s economy, unveiled late last month, calls for “historic levels of economic stimulus,” including federal funds, help from private businesses and philanthropists — and the prospect of tapping the state’s nearly $1 billion Rainy Day Fund at some point.
Money from all those sources would be pumped into jobless benefits, loans to businesses and nonprofits, and delaying tax and other payments.
Despite these efforts, Huntsman said he was concerned the state had made some “serious miscalculations when it comes to protecting our economy” and called for quicker action to get capital to businesses as unemployment skyrockets.
“It is unconscionable to sit on a Rainy Day Fund of nearly $1 billion in taxpayer money while businesses are gasping for air,” he said in a prepared statement. “The state should work with local banks to encourage them to offer interest-free loans and we should deploy $300 million of that Rainy Day Fund in a similar way to help businesses survive. Doing so would make a big difference but the window for that to be effective is closing rapidly.”
While his opponents were quick to criticize the state’s economic efforts, Cox praised the work already done during this “urgent” phase of recovery and said Utahns should expect to see more planning on Utah’s economic response made public in the coming days.
“We have to have the health response first and we have to get that right, but not at the expense of the economic response,” he said. “So by flattening the curve, we’re buying us time so we can have a more robust economic response and move into that [stabilization phase] quicker.”
Cox, Garbett and Burningham all endorsed the idea of using the state’s Rainy Day Fund to relieve economic distress.
“This is a chance for us to reevaluate where we put our money," Garbett said, “and where we need to put money going forward in the future.”
Burningham also called for elimination of the state sales tax on groceries, at least in the short term, and for the state’s economic development effort to focus exclusively on Utah businesses.
“We need a sense of urgency around the economic help that we’re offering to Utahns,” he said. “I think that’s been lacking a little bit. We need to make a difference now, and we need to make these decisions now.”
Hughes broke with his opponents on using the Rainy Day Fund now, arguing that those dollars will be necessary later to make up for deep economic shortfalls as a result of the coronavirus.
“I don’t think it would be responsible to look at rainy day funds in the climate we’re in now,” he said, adding that using that money “to inject capital into the economy right now will leave us with even greater challenges going forward in this coming fiscal year.”
As the coronavirus has upended this year’s race to replace Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than 10 years in the post, Winder Newton said she’s not only approaching campaigning in a different way but is also rethinking her policy positions around the economy.
“I’m starting to put together some ideas on what we need to be doing as a state come January so we’re prepared,” she said.
Those policy proposals, she said, include providing targeted assistance to businesses that are completely or partially shut down because of government edicts, tightening up state budgets in the face of revenue loss and eliminating regulations to ensure businesses are able to respond more nimbly to new opportunities.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.