Tribune Editorial: Utah must turn up coronavirus restrictions

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert at a news conference announcing the "Stay Safe to Stay Open" campaign in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. The Salt Lake Chamber and Utah Department of Health will be asking businesses to public health best practices to fight COVID.

Orange is the new normal.

Our skies are orange. Our president is orange.

Everything is orange except the one thing that really needs to be, and that’s Utah’s coronavirus restriction level.

The state set a new record for a one-day increase in COVID-19 cases Thursday, reporting 1,501 new diagnoses. We have recorded more than 500 deaths, our intensive care unit beds are approaching capacity, and our front-line medical staffers are exhausted. The rate of positive results from testing is a frightening 13%.

All the numbers should be moving Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (supposedly head of the state’s coronavirus task force) to ratchet the alert level of the densely populated Wasatch Front counties — if not the whole state — back to the orange level of restrictions. That’s where in-person schooling is limited, fitness centers are closed, gatherings should be no more than 20 people and restaurants are oriented to takeout and delivery.

That’s where the cities of Orem and Provo are. That’s where Salt Lake City would be if the state — run by people who usually promote local decision-making — would listen to Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

The state’s color-coded pandemic plan was designed to be easily adjustable according to conditions. But our leaders won’t touch that dial.

Instead, Herbert implores, hopes, expresses disappointment, sighs audibly and cannot understand why so many people in his state selfishly refuse to take the necessary steps to protect themselves, their families, their communities and the schools and businesses everyone seems to want open but won’t do anything to shelter from a highly communicable disease.

The rush to reopen, with no accompanying leadership to impose a statewide mask requirement or install a sufficient regime of testing, tracing and isolating, is clearly depriving more children of their educational opportunities and more businesses of customers who are confident enough to venture out.

Oh, we’ve spent money. Millions of dollars on no-bid, not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know contracts for substandard testing regimes and dumb smartphone apps. COVID-19 has not been a call to public service in Utah so much as a crony capitalism business opportunity.

The other center of power in the state — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has also failed to use its most prominent of pulpits to inspire its many followers to exercise the other six days of the week the same levels of caution the church has wisely demonstrated in its own properties and events.

It’s all been explained to us. The governor, the lieutenant governor (when there is a sighting), the state’s epidemiologist, the chief medical officers of the state’s four main hospital groups and various other worthies and experts have made it clear that COVID-19 is an insidious yet capricious killer that seems unreal to many because those who die often do so alone, without even their closest loved ones allowed in the room.

Mandates in the face of a public health emergency are not dictatorship. They are leadership. Which even the freest societies must have to remain free, healthy and prosperous.

A refusal to lead is not freedom, not respect for the people. It is cowardice.

Granted, there are political circumstances that make the kind of leadership Utah needs right now a heavier lift.

The president of the United States wobbles between calling the pandemic a hoax and touting one or another unapproved drug as a miracle cure. Anti-mask, anti-shutdown protests have taken the form of disrupting County Commission meetings in Provo and plots by armed gangs (please, don’t call them militias) to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

All that makes leadership in the face of this pandemic more difficult. And much more necessary.