James Sawyer: Utah used to be a place where we looked after each other

Why is Utah not leading the nation in the rate of people vaccinated against COVID-19?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Candice Pierucci at the House Government Operations Committee, Jan. 27, 2022.

The Utah Legislature voted to override locally imposed COVID mask mandates, nullifying local policies enacted by Salt Lake City and Summit County. Both cities are politically liberal, compared with the balance of Utah where political control rests solidly in the hands of a Republican majority in which the cultural values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are represented predominantly.

According to state Rep. Candice Pierucci, the 29-year-old Republican and Utah House bill sponsor: “Government cannot mandate kindness or compassion. If we think we’re going to mandate people caring, we’re kidding ourselves.”

She argued it’s up to “families, churches and nongovernment entities to teach people how to love one another. That’s how you create kindness and compassion, not through mandates.” Leading up to the vote, Utah Republican lawmakers argued mask mandates don’t work and do more harm than good by dividing communities.

At the end of January 2022, Utah trailed the national average by 7 percentage points in the number of eligible residents who had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine. I wonder: Why is Utah trailing rather than leading the nation?

I was 11 years old when the Salk polio vaccine appeared in Ogden. Looking back, it seemed my state wanted to set a national standard for how communities should act, communally. I remember harmonious appeals by public officials and church leaders — LDS Church leaders — especially. Everyone was encouraged to do their part, to pull together, to keep our communities safe. The object was to safeguard everyone, especially those most vulnerable to polio’s scourge.

Pierucci’s “kindness” comment seems at odds with Utah’s “community spiritedness” from a prior generation. I believe the watershed away from government-led civic virtue is best summed up in Ronald Reagan’s election rhetoric, calling Americans to disconnect from ideological alignment as communitarians, and to leap toward values instead, better described as libertarian.

My belief is that it was Ronald Reagan’s anti-government tirades that called Utahns away from the type of government-endorsed kindness Pierucci now despises. Indeed, this is the Reagan “moment” I best remember: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he bantered at his Republican base, “are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’.”

My take on Utah’s rebranding of what constitutes legitimate “civic virtue” runs in the direction of comments by Dr. Wing Province, medical director of Intermountain Park City Hospital, around the time of passage of the Pierucci-sponsored bill.

“It’s a disease and a pandemic that could have ended long ago if we could just put the needs of others ahead of our own by wearing masks in public as well as getting vaccinated and boosted against the virus,” Province said.

Province was among medical personnel who deployed to New York City from Utah in the earliest days of the outbreak. To the press, he described how residents of that huge and diverse city were able to put aside differences and come together in response to the crisis. He said if Utahns choose not to follow mitigation measures intended to slow the disease’s spread and instead “put our own priorities ahead of those around us, then we’re going to continue to have this pandemic, a pandemic not only of a virus but I think a pandemic of personal moral character.”

I wonder. Has New York City — once used in Utah to illustrate what many believed to be a place where people don’t pull together — become instead, a place where Americans do? And by the same token, has my state of origin become a place where Utahns do not?

James Sawyer

James Sawyer, Fort Collins, Colorado, grew up in Ogden, served as advisor to Utah Gov. Calvin Rampton and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Utah. He is emeritus from Seattle University, where he also taught civics, and now hosts an on-line civic education site: https://joiningournation.com