Robert Gehrke: Utah legislators are pushing a quick exit from COVID restrictions, but these steps are more critical

Rep. Paul Ray believes the pandemic is basically over, so much so that he’s predicting big changes soon.

“I honestly think we’re going to have a Jazz game by the end of the week at full capacity,” he told me Tuesday. There will be masks and limited concessions, he believes, but he envisions stands filled with 18,300 fans, as opposed to the 3,900 that have been permitted recently.

He’s wrong about his prediction — the Utah Jazz don’t have another home game scheduled until March 12, after the All Star break — but his statement shows the extent to which Ray believes the pandemic is a thing of the past, a view shared by many of his legislative colleagues.

“I honestly believe we’re nearly through,” he said. “I want an end game.”

We all want an end game.

But there’s a difference between getting to that endpoint fast and getting there right.

For nearly a year, Ray has been a COVID skeptic. Last May he said the state had overreacted to the virus and called for a lifting of restrictions and a full reopening of the state. Ray actually got the coronavirus and said it was nothing but a few days of “the sniffles.”

This week, Texas and Mississippi simply lifted their restrictions. To Ray’s credit, his HB294 doesn’t take that approach. He worked with Utah Health Department and tried to find a path down the middle.

“Walking the high wire in the circus is probably the best training I’ve had for this,” said Ray, who — and this is true — walked the tightrope in the circus.

Ray’s bill, which passed the House 50-21 on Wednesday, would rescind the statewide public health orders that have been in place for months once key metrics on case counts, intensive care occupancy and vaccinations are met. And the criteria are not inherently unreasonable.

On case counts, the revised bill says the state has to have fewer than 191 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days. That’s a fancy way of saying about 6,251 cases in a two-week period, or about 447 per day. Right now we’re averaging 688 per day, but the number is falling rapidly and, assuming we maintain that downward course, we could reach that threshold in two to three weeks.

The second checkpoint is to have coronavirus patients occupying fewer than 15% of ICU beds. That one should be easier. We were just above 15% on Sunday before climbing to above 17% on Tuesday. Ray had wanted the figure to be 20% and the Health Department pushed for 6%. We know that as cases climb or drop, so do hospitalizations, and since cases are dropping we could go below the 15% mark as early as this week.

That leaves the vaccination mile marker, which the state would cross once more than 1.6 million Utahns, or half the population, receive the first dose of the vaccine. So far nearly 500,000 have been administered, although the pace of vaccination has quickened and should accelerate more with the arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. We could cross that threshold in mid-April.

Ray also met another request from the Health Department, allowing mask requirements to remain in effect for gatherings of 50 or more when people could not socially distance — meaning there won’t be sold-out unmasked Jazz games. With the revisions, the Health Department is largely on board and, indeed, has put similar targets in place. So the benchmarks aren’t the issue.

The problem is that on the day all three measures are met, all COVID-19 precautions are rescinded, including those issued by local health departments (although school districts could keep mask requirements until July 1). This would happen even if there is an outbreak in one area, but not others. It is a one-size-fits-all solution.

With half the population vaccinated by then, particularly those most at-risk, maybe it won’t matter. But if it does, and the virus starts spreading, it’s a switch that only goes one way. The department wouldn’t be able to respond without, as Ray explained, the Legislature calling itself into a special emergency session.

Masks, as much as we have grown to detest them, are the least intrusive and most effective preventative measure we have, and should be the last safeguard to go. And it’s reckless to get rid of mask requirements and open events to thousands of people at the same time.

I’m not saying Ray’s approach is without merit. If I was trying to legislate an end to the pandemic, it’s a reasonable attempt. But we don’t control the course of the coronavirus. We never have and when hubris has driven the decision-making it hasn’t ended well.

Rather than trying to legislate a touchdown from the 20-yard-line, there are important COVID-related bills the Legislature should be prioritizing.

One is SB202, sponsored by Sen. Kirk Cullimore that would set up a $30 million state grant program for small businesses that have suffered losses as a result of the shutdowns. It’s a good idea that will sustain businesses that made sacrifices over the past year, and help the people who make a living there.

It’s important and ought to be passed and funded.

The other is Rep. Suzanne Harrison’s HB445, exempting federal Paycheck Protection grants from state taxes. It makes little sense to give businesses money to compensate them for the losses they have suffered to keep us safe — then tax them on it months later.

It boils down to the nature of the process. The Legislature is bad at somethings — like predicting a rapidly evolving pandemic. But it is essential to the resurgence that I’m confident and Rep. Paul Ray is confident is coming, and that is a better place for forward-looking lawmakers to be focusing their energy.