Tribune Editorial: Time for action in Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert makes a few comments about the evolving economic situation associated with COVID-19, in a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Friday, March 20, 2020.

Things are moving pretty fast.

By the time you read this, it is possible that the governor of Utah and/or the mayor of Salt Lake City and/or Salt Lake County will have issued a true shelter-in-place order in an attempt to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As was done in Summit County Thursday.

If none of them has done this, then things are not moving fast enough.

Update: March 28, 3:40 p.m.: Late Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a directive he entitled, “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” It asks all Utahns to stay at home and limit themselves to only essential activities such as grocery shopping or picking up medications. Shortly thereafter, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued her fifth emergency proclamation, making the governor’s requests mandatory within the city limits and adding such provisions as restrictions on Salt Lake International Airport and ordering that no city water customers have their service shut off for nonpayment.

Folks all over are whining that their community, their county, their neighborhood hasn’t been clobbered by the virus yet, and so no extraordinary action is needed. But the point of shelter-in-place orders, of closing restaurants and bars and schools, of suspending sporting events, is to try to get out ahead of this potentially deadly contagion. Once a large outbreak is here, it’s too late.

As Mike Leavitt, former governor of Utah, said in 2007, during his tenure as head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.”

If the tens of thousands of coronavirus tests suddenly became available, it might make sense to test large numbers of people, separate those infected from those not, pay special attention to the elderly and otherwise vulnerable people, and carefully and with precision ease back on all the self-isolation stuff. But that’s not where we are.

It makes sense that Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson would prefer for the order for everyone to just stay the hell home, except for such essential chores as buying food and medicine, to come from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert rather than issue such edicts themselves. A statewide declaration would not only draw more attention and carry more gravity, it would also remove any question of which towns or counties are covered and which aren’t.

Herbert Friday afternoon urged Utahns to do what most of us are already doing, don’t go out much, but deliberately avoided calling it a shelter-in-place order. He may fear that such wording would even more damage to the state’s economy. And it most certainly will. But not as nearly as much damage as would be done by a full-blown epidemic ravaging the population, overwhelming hospitals and the rest of the state’s health care system and motivating people to quite rationally self-quarantine on their own.

Also, if we are worried about the economy, and we should be, then it is also high time for the state to take much bolder action to counter a trend that is going down and is almost certain to continue in that direction, shelter-in-place orders or no.

The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package hammered out by Congress will help. But the payout will be slow and, in some cases, either directed to specific industries or mired in red tape. It just won’t be enough.

The state of Utah, meanwhile, is not only able to act much more nimbly, it also is in a position to grant or lend large amounts money without going into debt. The state’s Rainy Day fund now sits, all fat and happy, with some $932 million with nobody’s name on it. Now — actually, yesterday — would be a good time to bust into that piggy bank to provide zero-interest bridge loans to small businesses so they can meet payroll and pay their rent.

Because, hey, it’s raining.