The Utah State Legislature is considering a bill that would limit the executive branch’s powers during “long-term emergencies” without “hindering rapid response” or disrupting the executive branch or Utah Department of Health’s “ability to respond to short-term emergencies.”
Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, would place “checks on broad, restrictive orders issued by public health officials,” such as health orders that “apply broadly to groups or places” or “enforce isolations, quarantines or stay-at-home orders, executive control over public gatherings or property or closes schools, theaters or other gathering places,” according to a summary of the legislation.
The bill also would give state lawmakers and county governing bodies the ability to terminate “an order of constraint or restriction issued by the state or local health departments,” as well as “a local emergency declaration or emergency action of a city or county chief executive.”
Additionally, local health departments would be required to provide notice to a county legislative body before declaring a public health emergency or issuing an order of constraint, and would be prohibited from issuing an order of constraint “without approval of the relevant county chief executive.”
The bill follows up on legislation passed and signed into law in 2020 requiring Utah’s governor to consult with a “legislative pandemic response team” before taking an executive action “in response to an epidemic or pandemic.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Vickers told reporters that there have been “good and bad” aspects to the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that lawmakers have “tried to learn from the process as we’ve gone through.”
“And one thing we’ve learned through that process is that we did need to make some modifications to our emergency powers legislation and how we react to these long-term emergency situations,” the senator said.
House Majority Assistant Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem, who is the co-sponsor of S.B. 195, said the intent of the bill was to limit executive powers “in such a way that we don’t hamstring them at all, that they still have the ability to respond to any emergency that they might encounter and then make sure that we have the appropriate checks and balances.”
The bill would clarify that the existing $10,000 maximum fine that the Utah Department of Health can levy for violation of a health order “is applicable only to businesses” and would create a $150 maximum fine for individuals.
“We did realize during the recent pandemic with COVID that there was some uncertainty about this $10,000 fine,” Vickers said, adding that “the intent was just for businesses, but there was a lot of fear and anxiety that it was meant for individuals, and so we felt like we needed to clarify that.”
Four individuals and two businesses were each fined $10,000 by the Utah County Health Department on Feb. 8 for allegedly organizing and promoting a Halloween party near Utah Lake that violated health guidelines.
The bill also addresses “religious protections” by prohibiting the governor or a health department “from placing a more restrictive order of constraint on a religious gathering than on other public gatherings.”
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said she appreciated that Republicans included Democratic lawmakers in the discussion about limiting emergency powers and added that the bill is still a work in progress.
Vickers said Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson was involved in discussions and that he expected “to see the governor support and sign the bill.”
The bill is scheduled to be discussed during a Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Standing Committee meeting on Thursday at 8 a.m.