Utah lawmaker says state ‘overreacted,’ driven by coronavirus panic and fear; calls for full reopening of the state

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday Feb. 27, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

A Utah lawmaker says the state government needs to admit it “overreacted” about the coronavirus and move to completely reopen the economy.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, argued in a lengthy Facebook post Monday that the response to the pandemic has been driven by media reports and panic — not by data.

“It’s time to stop closing businesses and putting undue regulations and restrictions on our citizens,” he said.

Ray, a COVID-19 Community Task Force member, noted in his post that the state received reports of 7,794 positive influenza tests and 1,288 associated hospitalizations during the 2019-2020 flu season, which began in late September. Alzheimer’s disease took 983 Utahns, he said, while heart disease killed 1,685.

On Tuesday, the state reported a total 5,449 coronavirus cases with 56 deaths in the approximately two months it has kept track.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, the Clearfield Republican said he recognized those comparisons aren’t completely congruent but said the coronavirus case numbers and death toll are worth “a good hard look.”

“You have to go back and look at the fatality rate and that’s honestly pretty steady to what we’re seeing with the flu,” he said.

Disease experts say, however, that coronavirus antibody tests show that the virus is significantly more lethal than the seasonal flu, the Washington Post reported late last month.

Lauren Simpson, policy director for the progressive-leaning government accountability group Alliance for a Better Utah, called Ray’s post “a dangerous and irresponsible use of his platform as a public official.”

Choosing between public health and the economy, Simpson said, “is a false dichotomy. … Our economic health and success is really dependent on our public health.” She added that removing all restrictions now, as the coronavirus continues to spread, “would be setting ourselves up for more economic stress down the road.”

People of all political beliefs, Simpson said, “want the same thing at the end of the day: We all want everyone in Utah to be healthy and safe and economically prosperous. I don’t know how we can achieve that goal by doing the opposite of what we have been doing.”

Ray said on Facebook that he is working on legislation that would prohibit local health departments from “unilaterally quarantining healthy citizens and closing down the economy” but told The Tribune that such local preemption would likely not come during a special session. He wants to save that policy shift for a time when people are less “emotional and tired and upset.”

In that case, any changes passed would probably apply more to a future pandemic than to COVID-19, he said.

“It seems to happen every 100 years, so it would be for the 2119 pandemic,” he noted with a laugh.

Ray said he also wants to change Utah’s unemployment laws to ensure people who are more vulnerable to severe illness or death as a result of the coronavirus can continue to receive unemployment benefits even if their job opens back up.

“Let’s protect the vulnerable population [and] get the healthy population back to work,” he said, advocating for Utah to move from its current “orange” risk level to “green.”

Either way, the state lawmaker argued, lives will be lost — whether as a result of the coronavirus or because of budget trims related to declining state revenue.

With $2 billion expected to be placed on the chopping block, “I’m going to have to cut social services, and people lose their lives when they lose some of these services,” said Ray, who’s on the state’s social services appropriations subcommittee. “We’re going to lose lives regardless of what we do, so we’re better off opening the economy back up.”

Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.