When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Utah Legislature has established beyond all doubt that it cannot lead and will not follow. So it should just get the hell out of the way.
This is no longer just political posturing. It is a moral imperative.
People who know what they are doing — people who run county health departments, school districts, hospitals and city halls around Utah — should be allowed to make their own informed decisions about requiring masks for all who work in or enter schools, other public buildings or places of business. Or mandating either a vaccination or regular tests for anyone who works in a venue subject to transmission of the virus — especially health care facilities.
But ill-advised actions by the Utah Legislature banning mask mandates and prohibiting the use of state money for vaccine incentives has unreasonably tied the hands of the governor, the state Health Department, mayors, school boards and county health directors.
What ought to happen now is for Gov. Spencer Cox to call the Utah Legislature into special session for it to repeal and remove all laws that impede actions to safeguard public health. Even if our state establishment is too weak to actually do something, it should not force others to take a similarly ignorant stance.
What is more likely to happen is that we will see responsible leaders, wherever they may be found, push the envelope as far as they can to do what the state won’t do, maybe even what the state won’t allow, and hope for the best.
The problem is that viruses evolve much faster than do human societies. Especially, it seems, this human society.
The Delta variant is more likely to be carried and spread, even via fully vaccinated people who remain a threat to others even as they are highly unlikely to get sick or die themselves. That greatly increases the risk, not only to those who haven’t bothered to get vaccinated, but especially to those who, due to age or immunocompromised conditions, cannot.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has taken the necessary step of requiring everyone in every city-owned building — staff and visitors — to mask up. Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant, blessedly independent of the Legislature, has issued a similar order for courthouses.
President Joe Biden is using his executive authority to require federal workers, including the military, to either be vaccinated or take frequent virus tests. He is encouraging state and local governments to follow the example of New York City’s $100 payment for those who get vaccinated.
Yes, it’s that serious. And it could have been avoided.
Ever since the early days of the pandemic, the clear priority of our leaders at the state level has been to let big-buck, no-bid contracts, mostly to outfits that had no particular expertise in controlling infectious disease, promote quack cures and carry the water of those who think that acting in the public interest is somehow to be a victim of tyranny.
When the Republican-dominated Legislature did act, over the objection of minority Democrats, the goal was mostly to disarm those who were really fighting the virus. The primary example was the so-called “pandemic endgame” bill — House Bill 294 — which ordered an end to mask mandates at arbitrary times just to appease those who object to doing anything to protect public health. This was done at the behest of Senate President Stuart Adams, House Speaker Brad Wilson and bill sponsors Rep. Paul Ray and Sen. Derrin Owens, Republicans all.
And as the number of cases, deaths and hospitalizations all trend up in Utah, what are our state political leaders doing? Well, for one thing, inviting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, chief executive of one of the world’s most dangerous coronavirus hotspots, to speak to the annual convention of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, where he predictably mocked the latest Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
It’s almost as if ALEC and its current chairman, Utah’s Sen. Adams, invited a COVID-19 virus to be its keynote speaker, to hear it tell the assembled science-deniers, “Heck of a job.”
The basic purpose of government at all levels is to keep us safe. Every public official ought to be using every tool in the kit to promote vaccines. Because if encouragement and incentives don’t work, the choice before us will be mandates or shutdowns. Or both.
But just as state and local governments were getting the hang of vaccine distribution, as supplies were made widely available to pharmacies, county health departments, senior centers and pop-up clinics nearly everywhere, demand dropped off. Anti-vaccine propaganda — relentlessly promoted by Fox News charlatans and right-wing media — has frightened away the very people who should have been at the front of the line.
Hopes expressed by the president, among others, that 70% of eligible people would be fully vaccinated by July 4 were not realized. Nationally, we’re only up to 57.6% of those over the age of 12. Going by the metric of fully vaccinated people age 18 and up, Utah stands at roughly 59%.
Neither of those are remotely good enough.
The reason why responsible adults from Salt Lake City to Broadway to Disney World are requiring masks again, even for those who have been fully vaccinated, is the failure of so many of us to take advantage of the widely available and free vaccine. And the failure of those who have either refused to lead, or misled us to this sorry situation.
* Correction: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly described the rules for University of Utah hospitals and clinics, including the Huntsman Cancer Center. Those facilities do require masks.