Early on in the pandemic, Congress came together in a rare act of bipartisanship to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES, a staggering $2 trillion effort to counteract the economic fallout of the global public health crisis.
But economic strife continues, COVID-19 is spreading, and Washington, D.C., is back to its usual gridlock. On the local level, Utahns are adjusting to new routines.
“In a strange way, it’s starting to feel normal to wear masks everywhere,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. “Your mind, it takes a while, but … I feel like I’m in a rhythm now.”
Salt Lake County, Utah’s most populated, has seen the most COVID-19 infections to date. It received $203 million in federal assistance, which has helped the county fund quarantine facilities, contact tracing and other public health interventions. Wilson also set aside significant bundles of those federal dollars to assist school districts, business owners and cities. The mayor recently spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune — via Zoom interview — to discuss the pandemic, how she prioritized federal spending and the county’s future needs. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Early on, when the county received all this CARES Act funding, in your gut did you think the pandemic would last this long?
“I think we were all following those models that showed a peak of COVID-19 cases and then a fall. As I looked at them, I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to be done by July.’ Instead, we’re seeing rolling numbers and that has meant that we’re at this a lot longer. I would agree with those who say this virus is with us. I think we will see it continue until we have a vaccine.”
When do you think life for county residents will go back to some semblance of normalcy?
“None of us really know. We’re looking at the progress of some vaccines that are in third-stage trials. But how quickly can you vaccinate a country with 300 million-plus people? And will we be the priority? Probably not. I would think we’re looking at the first quarter of next year when most of us will be able to receive the vaccine. Economic recovery will take years. But our direct COVID-19 interventions will probably last through June of next year, I would guess.”
Do you have enough CARES Act money to get by until then? Or do you need another round of funding?
“Another round of funding to support local governments will put us in a position to get through this crisis without additional budget impact. I think what’s needed most right now is some support to the cities.
“We funneled out $34 million of our CARES funding to municipalities. But we’re also recognizing that our normal budget at Salt Lake County is actually a significant support to a lot of cities, and the part of our budget that has been most impacted is the tourism and recreation fund. We will have to delay really great projects that the cities have requested in their communities, like splash pads and jungle gyms. A lot of maintenance projects will be delayed if we don’t get budget recovery available through the federal government as well.”
You recently announced the county has expanded its Small Business Impact Grant program and that you’re hoping to hand out $40 million to impacted business owners. What’s the current status?
“So far, we have given out $3 million. The average grant award is $17,000. We have, right now, requests totaling $7.3 million that are being processed and 352 applications under review.”
Why set aside $10 million for schools when the county has no jurisdiction over them?
“We know our school districts are underfunded, that’s just a reality. We have a lot of administrators and teachers doing their best, but we had a funding challenge pre-COVID. It became clear with the early dismissal of school that kids were left behind, many without technology. And it’s not only kids in need. If you’re a family working from home and your child doesn’t have a device because you need to dial in for work, that’s a need as well.”
What other areas are you eyeing for funding?
“We determined our costs generally per day in fighting COVID-19 and set aside money into the future. So we haven’t spent all the money to date, and we have reserved funding for vaccine administration. We’re also seeing higher rates of domestic violence, so we’re in the process of distributing some support to our nonprofit partners who are addressing those impacts.”
The CARES Act will only cover the county’s pandemic expenses until the end of December, correct?
“The U.S. Senate and House leadership are in conference to come up with a compromise. We’re fairly certain we’ll be given additional time, but we’re monitoring the progress of those negotiations.
“I think it was an arbitrary deadline for the federal government. In the early days, when they passed the CARES Act, they didn’t have a crystal ball any more than we did. They couldn’t predict the date that COVID-19 would be eliminated from the community. By 2021, we will still be working on medical interventions, health interventions, case tracing and vaccine administration, and we will continue to have economic need.”
If you could go to Congress and get your wish granted today in terms of pandemic funding, what would you ask for?
“The most important thing for Salt Lake County is more time. That’s why deadline extension of the CARES Act is key. It’s likely the vaccine will be available during the dead of winter. We’ll have to social distance while it’s administered and we can’t just line up in the cold. There are a lot of systems that our health department will need to put in place. That’s true for all of our 29 counties. It’s a challenge for every community in the nation and throughout the world.”
Do you see any positive lasting effects from the pandemic?
“This pandemic is a time of disruption, but it’s also a time of innovation. One little example is telework. Before the pandemic, we at the county were trying to figure out how to identify employees who could work from home during days with bad air quality. Then boom, we didn’t have a choice. And we made it work. So, in the future, we’re going to be more thoughtful of who needs to physically come to work. I know businesses are doing the same thing right now.”