To the list of casualties lost to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, add the reputation Utah cultivates as The Best Managed State®.
The Republicans who control the Utah Legislature and sit in the governor’s office reasonably brag about the state’s image as a well-oiled machine, with rapid economic growth, low taxes and efficient public services. When the measuring stick is the hassle, or lack thereof, involved in getting a license to drive or hunt or open a business, to file taxes or register to vote, the smugness is justified.
But properly managing a state involves a lot more than just good customer service. It requires someone to actually govern.
For an example to follow, our elected officials should look to a part of the state establishment that is doing its job - the independently managed public colleges and universities. Those institutions have made the correct decision to mandate vaccines for students who plan to attend in-person classes starting next semester. Individual exemptions are allowed, but it is unlikely that many will be sought or granted as more people accept the necessity of this public health mandate.
Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson expressed support for the college’s actions when they were announced. Clearly they should go beyond that passive support and see to it that the colleges’ example be followed by all state agencies, public schools and large employers.
At least they should drop their performative opposition to the workplace safety order issued by President Joe Biden, the one that requires either vaccination or weekly testing at all companies with at least 100 employees.
The argument that our state officials are standing up for individual liberty by opposing Biden’s jab-or-test requirement is without merit. The argument that a decision to vaccinate or not affects only the person making that choice, and not everyone they encounter, is palpably false.
Our leaders might as well defend the right of their constituents to drive 70 mph through school zones or to pee on the floor in restaurants. The example they set has left us with people who are disgracefully hostile to health care workers, who disrupt public meetings, schools that thought about sweeping case counts under the rug and families that won’t cooperate with schools’ efforts to test and trace.
What information is available indicates not only that majorities of Americans favor vaccination requirements for workplaces and health care facilities, but also that they have proven to be the final nudge that many of us needed to do the right thing.
The core responsibilities of state and local governments do, in times of crisis, include more assertive acts to stand up to hazards that will, left unaddressed, directly threaten our lives, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness.
We enjoyed a welcome lull in case counts over the summer, and a sense of relief occasioned by the arrival of not one, but three, effective vaccines. But now positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths in Utah are starting to climb to levels that are at or above where they were a year ago, when we were rightly panicked about how bad things might get as the school year began and winter approached.
Even people who haven’t contracted coronavirus are negatively affected by its spread. Business is suffering. Education is disrupted. Nurses are exhausted and are seeking other jobs. People stricken by other maladies, from cancer to heart attacks, can’t find room in our overcrowded hospitals.
So what are our state leaders doing in the face of all this? Moving to protect us from coronavirus variants? To make it safe to go to school, to work, to the store?
Not a bit of it.
Instead, our top elected officials are bragging about standing in the way of mask mandates and vaccine requirements, in the process all but guaranteeing that the pandemic will linger and more will die.
The Legislature made it so difficult to install mask mandates on public schools that the only place such a necessary step has been taken is in Salt Lake City. And that only happened because Mayor Erin Mendenhall was so determined to do the right thing that she scared up a legal work-around to state restrictions.
Eighteen months ago, Salt Lake City had one of the highest rates of coronavirus cases in the state. Today, after Mendenhall’s order, the Salt Lake City School District has the lowest transmission rate among the county’s five school districts.
Meanwhile, Cox, Attorney General Sean Reyes and the Republican majorities of the Legislature and of the Salt Lake County Council are more concerned with maintaining their reputations as states rights crusaders than they are in saving the lives and livelihoods of their constituents.
State Rep. Paul Rey did serious damage to the state’s public health efforts when he used a committee hearing as a platform to go off on Intermountain Healthcare, accusing its leadership of faking a crisis of overcrowding in order to evade blame for its own mismanagement.
There was no rational basis for what Ray said and, even though he later walked back his comments a bit, the damage was done.
This is not just failure to lead. It is actively doing damage to the health of the community and may literally cost someone’s life.
If Utah finds its way out of another deadly wave of the pandemic, it will be in spite of our state government, not because of it.