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Who’s in charge of ending protective measures against the pandemic?

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Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference addressing preparations for a potential outbreak of the coronavirus in Utah at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 2, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If you’re sitting home wondering exactly how you landed in pandemic-land, consider this: Getting out of it is shaping up as an even bigger mystery.

In Washington, the president says he should be the one to control when states reopen their economies. Governors disagree.

Meanwhile, in Utah a completely different variation on that theme may be played soon.

Specifically, some lawmakers want the power to call the shots. 

The Utah Legislature is about to convene its first online session Thursday. A couple of days ago, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams told the Deseret News lawmakers were considering setting up a commission of medical professionals, business leaders and legislators to decide how to reopen the state for business. But in any event, he said, the final decision still would rest with the governor.

But now Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is sponsoring HB3005, which would require the governor to provide notice to, and consult with, legislative leaders before either declaring an emergency or issuing an executive order in response to a pandemic.

And it would allow lawmakers to terminate any such executive action through a joint resolution. 

All this is enough to make a conservative’s head spin. The sage wisdom of the ages is that the best government is the one closest to the people. That has traditionally been defined as your city or your county, and they seem to be left out of this mix. 

Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a general “stay home, stay safe” directive statewide, but Salt Lake County, for instance, has taken that a step further and issued a more restrictive stay home order.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who told me Tuesday she has been in close contact with the governor’s office since the start of the pandemic, just hopes whatever lawmakers do doesn’t lead to confusion.

“Give us something useful,” she said. “Don’t act out of frustration.”

Frustration, however, seems to be the emotion of the day, for some. I’ve spoken with lawmakers who are angry the economy has stopped and jobs have been lost, even as health experts and others point to the state’s relatively low death rate as evidence that stopping the economy worked.

So it may be useful to consider this apparently forgotten historical tidbit: We didn’t get into pandemic-land because the government shut things down.

I can’t speak for you, but the Deseret News sent me and most all other employees to our home offices on March 11, not long after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Gobert had been around sports writers and photographers who had been around everyone else in our building. 

The government didn’t tell us to send people home. It didn’t tell churches to cancel services. It didn’t tell the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball or Major League Soccer to shut down. Only eventually did various governments tell nonessential businesses, and those which couldn’t let people socially distance, to close.

Sure, many acted on the advice of health professionals and political leaders. But the stay-home directives and orders generally came after many people already were there.

And here’s another tidbit: Government doesn’t have the power to reopen the economy. Oh sure, it can lift orders or send messages of reassurance. But it’s the people, currently scared and tentative, and their employers, in many cases worried about legal liabilities and employee safety, who have to regain confidence before things get back to normal.

“Even if I lifted the order today, it won’t recover our economy,” Wilson said.

She doesn’t view a return to normal as flipping a light switch. It’s more like gradually turning a dimmer switch. 

She also said this “switch,” and how to turn it, occupies all her time right now as she decides how soon to begin sending the message that it’s OK to loosen restrictions a little, followed, hopefully, by a little more.

I reached out to Gibson to talk about his bill, with no success. At this point, it’s hard to say what lawmakers may or may not do when they convene.

But it seems cooperation, not frustration, should light the path forward, both in Utah and Washington. The president and governors should work together to make careful decisions, recognizing that Wyoming, for instance, might loosen restrictions sooner than New York. 

And the governor and local leaders, who seem to have worked together fine thus far, should continue to cooperate, perhaps with the help of advice from that commission the Senate president spoke of.

The mayor is right. Don’t needlessly confuse things.