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How did Utah get to this point in the COVID-19 pandemic?

What state leaders did to alter the way officials handle public health emergencies in the past two years.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County health director Angela Dunn presents slides showing the dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases during a Salt Lake County council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, attended by protesters opposed to the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson.

Utah now has the nation’s third-highest average daily coronavirus case rate, with the omicron variant pushing infection numbers in the Beehive State to their highest point in the pandemic.

The flood of cases has so overwhelmed the state’s testing system that Utah leaders have suspended the Test to Stay program at public schools. For the same reason, Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration is now asking people not to seek testing if they have COVID-19 symptoms and to isolate at home instead.

Health officials say, at least for now, an apparent plateau in new infections would likely signify a shortage of tests in Utah rather than a slowdown in disease spread.

Amid the surge, medical providers have limited eligibility for monoclonal antibody treatments because of dwindling supply, and University of Utah Hospital has had to close down 50 beds due to staffing shortages.

And making matters more complicated, it’s gotten harder over the past two years for state and local health officials to take action on containing disease spread — as Utah lawmakers frustrated by pandemic restrictions have redistributed the state’s emergency powers. In the wake of the changes, efforts to enforce mask orders have largely been undermined or overturned.

So how did we get here?

How the state handled COVID-19 early on

The pandemic hit during the last year of former Gov. Gary Herbert’s tenure, a time when the executive branch was more at liberty to impose public health restrictions across the state.

Herbert didn’t exercise his full powers during those first few months, declining to issue the broad stay-home orders seen in most other states. Infectious disease experts at times raised concerns about the lack of certain mandates or that restrictions were being lifted too soon to control the disease spread.

Still, Herbert did advise Utahns to shelter in place, ordered the closure of restaurant and bar dining rooms, handed down rules for businesses and restricted access to state parks. He also closed public schools for the first months of the pandemic, though he allowed them to reopen in the fall of 2020 despite an outcry from the state’s largest teachers union.

Later in 2020, he issued local and statewide mask decrees that elicited outrage from anti-mandate Utahns, with one rural county commissioner likening him to a Nazi for issuing a face-covering order.

Conservative state legislators also bridled at some of Herbert’s emergency declarations, frictions that ultimately led them to curb the authority of the executive branch.

What the Legislature did in response

Utah lawmakers wasted little time trying to rein in the powers of state and local executives, starting with the first special session they held after the pandemic began.

In April 2020, legislative leaders set a goal of lifting economic restrictions and getting back to normal by the first of May — and passed a bill creating a commission that would provide guidance for a phased reopening. In addition, the proposal stipulated that statewide directives issued by the commission and governor would, in most cases, supersede local orders that were more stringent.

Legislators also approved a measure requiring the governor to notify legislative leaders at least 24 hours in advance of making an emergency declaration or public health order during a pandemic.

Former House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, the bill’s sponsor, complained at the time that state lawmakers had heard about some of Herbert’s executive orders mere minutes before they went out publicly. But the Alliance for a Better Utah decried the proposal as a “blatant power grab” on the part of the Legislature.

By the time the 2021 general session rolled around, Cox was just setting out on the first year of his term, vowing to speed up the rollout of vaccines that many hoped would bring an end to the pandemic.

Utah lawmakers decided the availability of vaccines was enough to declare the public health crisis over and passed the so-called pandemic endgame bill, which lifted the statewide mask mandate in mid-April and terminated other health orders in early May.

Cox signed the legislation, saying he wanted to keep the mask mandate in place longer but was backed into a corner because the Legislature had enough votes to override a veto.

And then there was SB195, yet another proposal that chipped away at the authority of state and local executives and public health officials. The bill passed early last year diluted the governor’s authority during long-term emergencies and granted county councils and the Legislature the ability to overturn a health department order.

Cox also signed that measure into law.

What’s happened because of these changes?

The public health orders lifted last spring have remained suspended even as coronavirus case counts have soared and hospitalizations hit record levels.

And local attempts to enact mandates have been fraught with difficulty, now that SB195 has allowed legislative bodies to undo them.

Health officials in Salt Lake and Tooele counties last year tried to institute school mask mandates, but county councils overturned them in both cases. Though Salt Lake County’s more recent mask order narrowly survived a council vote last week, state lawmakers have hinted that they might do away with it in the upcoming legislative session.

Cox’s tone on COVID-19 has also shifted as the months have passed.

While he forcefully decried anti-vax sentiment and promoted mask-wearing earlier in his term, he’s gone on to deride what he called “extreme maskers” and tell them to “get over themselves.” In a speech last week, he asserted cloth and surgical masks are ineffective against the omicron variant — a remark an Intermountain infectious disease expert called “misleading” — and wished the assembled audience “good luck” with these face coverings.

He also exempted state-run buildings from mask orders imposed by Salt Lake County and other local governments and has pushed back on federal coronavirus vaccine mandates.

And the state’s efforts to double down on coronavirus measures likely aren’t over, as Utah lawmakers advance bills this session seeking to curb business and employer vaccine requirements.

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