SALT LAKE CITY — It’s time for the state to start getting back to work, says Utah Senate President Stuart Adams.
“We’ve done some really good things to crush the curve,” said the Layton Republican, alluding to efforts across the state to slow the spread of coronavirus and flatten the bell curve of new COVID-19 cases. “Now we need to move into a new phase.”
His call comes as Utah lawmakers prepare to meet in a special session on Thursday, largely to address the fallout of coronavirus. Calls by leaders and health officials for the public to limit their movements and stay home from work, while keeping coronavirus’ spread in check, have led to a slowdown in the economy and a spike in joblessness across the country.
Now, Adams says focus needs to be put on the economic situation, in part by gradually getting healthy Utahns now homebound due to stay-at-home calls back to work. As Senate president, Adams wields considerable power in Salt Lake City, and he touted a “thoughtful” approach that doesn’t cause a new flareup in coronavirus cases.
“We’ve got to find a way to get people to get back to work,” he told the Standard-Examiner. “We’ve got to start moving into a sustainable practice. What we’re doing right now is not sustainable economically.”
Stuart’s call underscores the rising debate among political leaders, health officials, business operators and others about whether and when coronavirus restrictions should be eased and pulled back so people can return to work, allowing the economy to get back on track.
Even so, Gov. Gary Herbert wants to continue with the current approach, at least for the near term. On Monday, he extended his “Stay Safe Stay Home” directive through May 1. Broadly, the initiative, complemented by orders issued by health officials in individual Utah counties, calls on the public to practice social distancing and to stay home “as much as possible” to keep coronavirus’s spread in check. It calls on employers to allow workers to do as much work from home as possible, among other things.
“We are seeing encouraging evidence that our efforts to stay home are making a difference,” Herbert said in a statement. “We cannot let up on these measures. Working together, we can slow the spread of coronavirus, alleviate the stress on our health systems and get Utahns back to work and to a level of normalcy more quickly. Extending these measures now, will save many lives.”
Brian Hatch, director of the Davis County Health Department, is mindful of calls to ease coronavirus restrictions so more and more people can get back to work. He’s been in touch with Adams and other state lawmakers on the topic. “Data is looking hopeful. It appears our numbers are lower in Utah than in other places,” he said.
That said, health orders limiting public movement in Davis County stay in effect until May 1, as with the state directive. And he steered clear of offering a timeline for easing of the restrictions.
“We do not want a reoccurrence of this or a second wave,” said Weber-Morgan Health Department Executive Director Brian Bennion, who shares Hatch’s cautious view. The Weber-Morgan Health Department on Tuesday extended the health order in place in the two counties until May 1.
Bennion, too, is mindful of calls to get the economy moving and open to the discussion. “That’s going to be a hot topic for all of us,” he said. However, the state remains in the “urgent” phase of dealing with the coronavirus threat, he added.
CARES ACT, JUNE 30 PRIMARY
The official statement on Monday announcing the special legislative session said it stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout. Specific issues to be addressed will be accepting funding for the state in the $2 trillion CARES Act, the federal economic relief measure aimed at dealing with coronavirus and its impacts, and preparing for the June 30 primary.
Legislation is in the works, Stuart said, and he proposed a number of strategies to allow Utahns to gradually get back to work.
At restaurants, for instance, seating could be allowed at every other table to assure social distancing while letting the establishments open their doors. Moreover, he said, outdoor dining could be a way to allow restaurants to reopen while addressing coronavirus concerns. Public health orders have forced eateries along the Wasatch Front to close, hitting them particularly hard, though they can provide take-out service.
Whatever changes are made, Stuart said older workers, those more potentially vulnerable to coronavirus, could be permitted to stay home.
Work and other restrictions implemented to fight coronavirus have hit hard in Utah and across the country. Utah Department of Workforce Services data released last week shows that claims for unemployment benefits, a measure of joblessness, totaled 33,076 for the week ending April 4. That’s up 2,824.5% from the weekly average of 1,131 in all of 2019.
The coming June 30 primary has been another focus of discussion amid coronavirus concerns and will be a likely focus of debate in the special session as well. Many in Utah vote by mail, preventing the sort of contact that occurs between voters and poll workers at traditional polling sites.
Utah Rep. Lou Shurtliff, a Democrat from Ogden and proponent of mail-in voting, doesn’t see any move to scale back mail-in voting. On the contrary, Adams thinks expanding it in light of coronavirus jitters could be a focus of discussion. He broached the notion of doing all voting by mail across the state “with a few exceptions.”
The patchwork of coronavirus-inspired public health orders across Utah by varied county health departments could be another talking point during the special session, Adams said. If someone lives in Salt Lake County, where more restrictive orders are in place, but works in Utah County “do you get up and go to work or don’t you?” Adams said.