Tribune Editorial: Let local officials make public health decisions

(Salt Lake County) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson announced a stay-at-home order on Sunday, March 29, 2020. This is a list of businesses that are closed, restricted and still open.

Many in Utah’s political class will tell you that they share a belief that the units of government closest to the people — the elected officials most familiar with local needs and priorities — should be the ones making important decisions.

Many in Utah’s political class are not being altogether straight with you.

Talk from some leaders of the Utah Legislature about denying local governments the power to issue mandatory stay-at-home orders in their jurisdictions proves that the principle of government closest to home is, for some lawmakers, a cruel facade.

They just want all the power for themselves.

A distaste for top-down management, opposition to one-size-fits-all policy-making, is behind the decision by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to go against the decisions made by 42 other governors — and most First World nations — in not issuing a mandatory, statewide stay-at-home order in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The argument made in this space last week — echoed by many local officials, health care providers and epidemiology pros — is that Herbert’s alternative of a nonmanditory directive is weak sauce that won’t get ahead of the virus, and so endangers lives and only prolongs the amount of time that distancing, school and business closures and canceled events will be necessary.

But Herbert has not, and should not have, stopped the decisions by seven counties around the state, mostly the high-population ones, to issue their own mandatory orders closing businesses and restricting movement to essential activities.

And there is reason to hope that it is working. The damage done in Utah by the coronavirus, as terrifying as it has been to some families and health care facilities, has so far been comparatively minor.

Enough of us are doing what the experts are telling us to do that, with luck, we may not have to do it as long, or suffer as much human and economic damage, as hot spots such as New York and Detroit.

But the fact that Utah has, so far, avoided the worst of COVID-19 in no way justifies the musings uttered by, among others, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, that the Legislature should undercut the authority of the local governments.

Some people the Layton Republican has talked to, he told The Tribune the other day, are suffering from “confusion” about what rules are in force in what localities.

Probably so.

But people suffering from “confusion” don’t need to be isolated, quarantined, sedated, attached to ventilators or buried without a proper funeral.

The annoyance that some people may suffer from, not being able to keep track of whether what’s allowed in Provo is also legal in Salt Lake City, is doubtless real. But it is no cause to tell either community that it must ease off on its rules because some other municipality doesn’t see, or admit, the need to take the same protective steps.

Legislation-by-anecdote — laws proposed and passed on the basis of a grouchy comment by one lawmaker’s neighbor or campaign contributor — is not unusual in Utah. But it is no cause to weaken the ability of cities and counties to declare health emergencies when, in the judgment of their elected leaders, such action is necessary.

Unless they want this pandemic to last longer, and cut deeper, the Legislature should back off.

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