COVID-19 cases are surging in Utah. Did lawmakers make it harder for state officials to respond?

Lawmakers passed several bills limiting government powers

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, sponsored a bill during the 2021 session to put limits on the governor's emergency powers.

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The Delta variant has helped drive new cases in Utah to their highest levels in months. Elective surgeries are being postponed as some hospitals fill up.

Doctors say they’ll work with school districts to try to keep the virus from spreading in schools, and they’re urging parents to have their kids wear masks in school.

But they cannot mandate that children do so, because during the 2021 session the Utah Legislature decreed that no school district can require a mask.

It was not the only “pandemic endgame” legislation passed by Utah’s elected officials. Several bills passed by lawmakers put curbs on or banned efforts that governments in other states are undertaking to address the pandemic’s resurgence.

Medical experts are warning COVID restrictions like masks and social distancing may become a necessity again as case numbers rise.

“My feeling is this is going to get worse before this gets better,” Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient services at University of Utah Medical Center, said last week.

As the number of new cases spike, there’s very little state health officials and Gov. Spencer Cox can do to address the surge. Right now, more than half of Utahns remain unvaccinated.

But, many of the options that were available last year have been taken off the table.

Emergency powers

As the pandemic dragged on through the latter half of 2020, Republican lawmakers chaffed at the parade of emergency declarations coming from the governor’s office. There had been some attempts to rein in then-Governor Gary Herbert’s ability to take emergency action. A bill was passed in an April special session requiring the governor to give 24-hour notice to legislators before taking any emergency action.

There was talk of terminating the state’s emergency order due to the pandemic, but that never amounted to anything due to a lack of political will. Simply put, Republicans couldn’t find enough votes to override a likely veto. Legislators argued emergencies should not last more than 30 days, and responding to long-term situations should be up to the Legislature, which sets policy for the state.

Late last summer lawmakers did not vote to renew the emergency order. Herbert simply issued a new one.

When legislators returned in January, a top priority was reining in the governor’s emergency powers. Eventually, they settled on SB195, which stipulated that if the governor wanted to extend a state of emergency beyond 30 days, the Legislature would be empowered to weigh in. Legislative leaders would form an emergency response committee consisting of lawmakers with relevant experience. The committee would also take public input on how to respond.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he’s comfortable with the process now and doesn’t feel it puts an undue burden on the ability of leaders to react.

“We’re in a good place right now. If something happens, the governor or a health department can declare an emergency. But if it lasts longer than 30 days, there’s now a process in place for us to work together,” Vickers said.

What about vaccines?

Utah is doing better than some states in vaccinating residents but remains below the national average. A little more than 51% of all Utahns have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 45.5% are fully vaccinated. Nationwide, 56.4% of Americans have at least one dose, with 48.8% completely innoculated.

Cox and state officials have repeatedly urged Utahns to get vaccinated, especially with the more contagious Delta variant accounting for more than 80% of all new cases. But, cajoling people to get the jab is about all they can do.

“It’s very sad,” Cox said during his June news conference on PBS Utah. “...They didn’t have to die. They don’t have to be in the hospital. But they’re dead now, and they’re in the hospital now, because they refused to get vaccinated.”

In May’s special session to accept and spend $1.6 billion in federal pandemic aid, legislative leaders tucked language into the appropriations bill that barred use of that money for a financial incentive or prizes to encourage Utahns to get vaccinated.

Nearly two dozen other states have offered some sort of incentive for residents to get vaccinated. There is some evidence that those inducements have pushed vaccination rates higher.

Legislative leaders said members of the House and Senate Republican caucus were steadfastly against the state offering any sort of prize or other inducements for Utahns to get the vaccine because it felt too close to a lottery. Gambling is prohibited by the Utah Constitution.

“At the time, other states were talking about lotteries and other prizes. We didn’t have any desire to go that direction. We don’t want the state to put any money into incentives.” Vickers said.

Lawmakers also blocked state government from requiring people to get the COVID-19 vaccination. That includes state colleges and universities. Private businesses in Utah can still require vaccinations for employees or customers.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, authored HB308. He says the government should not force people to get the vaccine if they don’t want to.

“I’ve encouraged people to get the vaccine. I’ve gotten it and my family has been vaccinated, too. It’s not the role of the government to force people to get the shot,” Spendlove said.

Children in Utah are already required to get six vaccines before entering kindergarten and four more prior to seventh grade. Spendlove says there’s one big difference.

“The COVID-19 vaccines are being administered under emergency authorization. Those other vaccines are not,” Spendlove said.

He admitted he would be open to revisiting requirements for the COVID vaccines once they gain full approval from the FDA, which could be sometime in 2022.

Return of masks?

Utah health officials are urging children under 12 to wear masks indoors to help avoid COVID-19 transmission. Don’t expect anything more.

In May, lawmakers passed a bill banning public schools and universities from requiring students to wear masks. Gov. Spencer Cox promised there would not be a mask requirement in place when students returned to the classroom in the fall.

The so-called “pandemic endgame” bill approved earlier this year ended the state’s mask mandate, but does allow local health departments to require face coverings so long as the move is approved by the county council or commission.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored the bill to end Utah’s pandemic restrictions, says it was the right move.

“I stand by that decision...People can get the vaccine. This is an issue of personal responsibility,” Ray said.

Personal responsibility

Republicans, who hold the majority in Utah, are leaning hard on the personal responsibility angle, wary of infringing on personal liberties even during a once-a-century pandemic. They’re encouraging Utahns to get vaccinated and take other precautions against the virus.

“I’ve had COVID, and I’ve been vaccinated,” Ray said. “If you feel like you can safely get the vaccine, that’s the easiest and quickest way for us to get out of this pandemic. If you’re worried about the virus, you can wear a mask.”

Vickers said numbers don’t lie. If you get vaccinated, the chances of being hospitalized or dying from the virus drop considerably.

“We can’t legislate behavior. We can strongly encourage people to get vaccinated, but that’s their personal choice. We can’t force people to do something they don’t want to do,” Vickers said.