Is a rift growing between Gov. Cox and Utah Lawmakers over COVID response restrictions?

Senate President Adams says Legislature found a ‘balanced approach’

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox holds a coronavirus briefing at St. Marks Hospital in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

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Gov. Spencer Cox was clearly frustrated as he once implored Utahns to “just please get vaccinated” on Tuesday, as new cases of COVID-19 contineu to rise in Utah.

Part of that frustration appeared to come from restrictions enacted by Utah lawmakers in the past year that put limits on the ability of Cox and other officials to react as the pandemic gets worse.

“As you know, the Legislature decided last year they wanted to take a more active role in managing the pandemic, and that is absolutely their right,” Cox said.

The so-called “pandemic endgame” bill, passed by lawmakers on the final night of the 2021 session, lifted the statewide mask mandate in April. At the time, Cox said he had no choice but to go along with that since Republicans in the House and Senate would have a veto-proof majority, so he negotiated a more gradual lifting of restrictions instead of fighting a protracted legal battle. The governor’s emergency powers were also severely curtailed, giving legislative leaders the authority to extend or terminate an emergency declaration after 30 days.

At the time, Cox said lawmakers would be on the hook since they decided to step in, especially since the tools available to officials were altered or severely cut back.

“The Legislature owns this now,” Cox said.

In May, lawmakers went further, blocking local school districts from enacting mask mandates. That decision now rests with local health officials, who must work with the county government.

“It’s great to have the Legislature want to get involved. We welcome that,” Cox said at a Tuesday press conference.

However, Cox did suggest that Capitol Hill’s involvement could make the response to a rapidly changing situation more sluggish.

“It’s a little harder for a body of that size to act in the moment,” Cox said.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is worried about the rising number of cases but he doesn’t think the Legislature needlessly interfered with managing the virus.

“We respond to the will of the people. We’re listening to our constituents, and we worked really hard to find a balanced approach,” Adams said.

Those changes won’t be reconsidered anytime soon. Legislative leaders say there have been no discussions about repealing the mask mandate ban, even though COVID cases are spiking right as kids are returning to school. One doctor is pleading for a mask mandate as the delta variant continues to rip through the state.

Adams points to Utah’s overall handling of the pandemic since last year as proof they found the right balance between government control and individual responsibility. The state’s economy is rebounding quickly, and Utah was one of only two states, along with Idaho, to add jobs amid the viral outbreak.

But the situation is quickly changing. Case numbers are climbing and officials are warning the state’s intensive care units are on the verge of being overwhelmed by COVID cases. There’s not much Cox can do in response other than pleading with Utahns to get vaccinated or wear a mask to stem the tide. Adams says he’s confident the Legislature will respond appropriately if a change is needed.

“We’re all concerned and we continue to be concerned. We found a way to manage the original virus and we’ll manage the variants. Whether we tied the governor’s hands, we feel we set parameters that are functional,” Adams said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Layton, did not respond to a request for comment.