As Utah’s COVID-19 cases spike, Gov. Gary Herbert praises the state’s economic response

As Utah’s coronavirus cases continue to spike — reaching an all-time high Thursday — Gov. Gary Herbert praised the state’s “balanced” approach to addressing the health effects of the pandemic while also protecting the economy.

“On balance, we’ve done a pretty good job,” he said at his televised monthly news conference with PBS Utah.

Nearly 450 people in the state have lost their lives to the coronavirus, and the case rate spiked to 1,198 on Thursday. But the governor noted that Utah has one of the lowest mortality rates in the nation at 0.7% and an overall death rate of 14 people per 100,000.

He contrasted that with New York City, which he said “some have put up as an example of success" but that has seen 170 deaths per 100,000 people. (The governor did not make the same comparison on recent COVID-19 case growth, where New York has recently had one of the lowest rates in the nation and Utah the sixth highest.)

[Read more: Thursday brings record high 1,198 new coronavirus cases to Utah.]

Maintaining a coronavirus death rate of less than 1% has been a key metric under Herbert’s latest “accountability” plan. But the state has strayed far from some of the other benchmarks he’s set on controlling the spread of the virus, including keeping weeklong averages to fewer than 400 new cases per day.

The state met that target in mid-August but surpassed it again as cases among young adults spiked after schools reopened. Now, for the past seven days, Utah has averaged 916 new positive test results per day.

The rate of tests with positive results has also hovered much higher than the 3% benchmark which state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has said would indicate the virus is under control. The test positivity rate was at 14.2% on Thursday, nearly five times beyond that metric.

In praising the state’s handling of the economy, Herbert took the opportunity to announce a number of business deals that have gone through in the past few months, adding thousands of jobs to the state. That’s a result, he said, of Utah’s decision not to shutter economic opportunities as some other states have done.

Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company, received a new contract to expand its Utah footprint, creating 2,500 jobs on its missile development program, he said. Malouf, a bedding and furniture manufacturer and distributor headquartered in Logan, is growing and will add 1,000 jobs. And Amazon and its web services have announced expansions that will mean “hundreds more jobs coming to Utah," he said.

Outdoor recreation companies have also had a good year despite the pandemic, as more people look to get outside “and not be so confined.” Bike shops and golf courses as well as RV, ATV and boat dealers have had “maybe record years,” Herbert said.

Construction employment is also booming, increasing by 7.4% and continuing to be Utah’s fastest growing major industry over the past 12 months, according to a new dashboard from the Salt Lake Chamber that’s tracking the state’s economic recovery.

Some industries, Herbert recognized, “are not so successful.”

“Our hospitality industry is down about 17%, and that’s probably the hardest hit of all the economic development opportunities we have," he said. "It’s been a big part of our economy, and we really are concerned about that and want to make sure we do what we can to get that to rebound and recover.”

Utah’s unemployment rate is at 4.1%, among the lowest in the country and less than half the national rate. But for those who are still out of work, Herbert noted that the state’s Department of Workforce Services hosted a job fair online Thursday, with 100 participating businesses and thousands of job openings.

“There are opportunities for people who are out of work to get a job," he said, “and maybe a new career.”

As of Thursday, the state has reported 47,839 ongoing weekly jobless claims, which includes people coping with layoffs, furloughs and those seeing pay cuts.

A recent Financial State of the States report by Truth in Accounting, a think tank that analyzes government accounting data, has found that the state’s government was one of the best prepared for the coronavirus. The Beehive State earned a "B" grade in the report and was listed as one of the top five “Sunshine States,” meaning it has enough money to pay its bills.

The report noted that, unlike in most states, Utah had a surplus available of $5.4 billion that “will help the state to weather the current pandemic and downturns in the market.” Rough estimates show the state is projected to lose $4 billion in revenue as a result of the pandemic.

Even as Herbert praised the state’s response to the coronavirus and its handling of the economy, the governor said he has two primary concerns, the first being “the spread of the virus.”

“But the thing that’s most concerning to me right now is the divisiveness that I see out there,” he continued, having pointed earlier to polarization over mask mandates and other measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have people out there purposely adding kerosene to the fire and becoming divisive when they ought to be saying, ‘Let’s work together to find compromise. Let’s work together to find a solution to the problem. Let’s have an accommodation,’" he said at the news conference. “We ought to all ask ourselves, ‘What am I doing to help improve the situation?’ We ought to all look and say, ‘I want to be part of the solution; not part of the problem.’”