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Are protesters right about getting back to work?

Members of the group “Freedom in the Numbers! No More Social Distance!” rally against a state stay-at-home request at the Salt Lake City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 18, 2020.
Utahns rally against a state stay-at-home request at the Salt Lake City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 18, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on politics has expanded beyond campaigning, dueling press conferences and who gets blame or credit. Actions by federal and state governments are generating protests among the general public. We do our best to explain.

As the pandemic shutdown drags on, we’re seeing rallies against “stay-at-home” orders. Are these protests an emotional flash response that will soon fade, or an indicator of much deeper citizen convictions with long-term consequences for society?

Pignanelli: “Most protesters are simply struggling Americans who have concluded that — at least for them — the cure is turning out to be worse than the disease.” — William McGurn, Wall Street Journal.

From the moment the Puritan separatists disembarked from the Mayflower, our country has been a series of arguments and protests. The demonstrations against lockdowns in a dozen states last week reflect this tradition.

Most observers conclude the demonstrations are organic actions organized through social media. Especially compelling is participants are not seeking handouts or anything free. They just want to return to work.

Lower- and middle-income families are suffering through no fault of their own. Yet, their questioning of extreme pandemic restrictions is often labeled as either insensitive or stupid. (My similar inquiries usually generate unkind or patronizing responses.) This only increases the frustration and anger. As these emotions percolate, they will impact the primary and possibly the general elections.

Shrewd politicians will acknowledge that protesters’ demands for employment are a positive — and very American — ritual.

Webb: A natural wariness of the coercive power of government — and its expense — is a healthy thing. So when government suddenly becomes a lot bigger and more intrusive, shutting down the economy and causing massive job loss, the backlash is not a surprise. That’s why it’s important for most governmental directives to be persuasive and voluntary, rather than police-enforced.

Government actions to this point have not been unreasonable, given the health risks, the emergency nature of the pandemic, and lack of accurate information and data. But now it’s time for the next phase.

One big consequence of the pandemic is a dramatic expansion of government power, and the accompanying meteoric increase in government spending. There have also been fascinating debates about the proper roles of different levels of government. It has become clear to me that the concept of balanced federalism is more important than ever. All levels of government have important and complementary roles to play. This emergency should not be an excuse to permanently expand the size and power of the federal government at the expense of states and local governments.

In responding to the coronavirus crisis, has Gov. Gary Herbert been too prescriptive in partially shutting down the state? Overall, how has his administration, and the Legislature, performed?

Pignanelli: Herbert enjoys a well-deserved reputation for appointing competent officials and judges. The incredible health and economic responses developed by his chosen teams magnifies this skill (i.e. TestUtah is an amazing assessment and testing tool — the product of a partnership between Silicon Slopes and the Department of Health, administered by the skillful Nathan Checketts). Herbert has great instincts and supports his people, despite national and local pressure to do otherwise.

The Legislature deserves accolades for responding quickly, in an online special session, to manage the budget and state programs. Furthermore, lawmakers are sensitive to the economic impact and are appropriately pushing hard for Utah to fully reopen for work.

Once again, the “Utah Way” is a practical philosophy adeptly administered by our state leaders.

Webb: Herbert has hit the right balance, mostly issuing directives that don’t carry the force of law, and opening things up as rapidly as possible. The overall state response has been excellent.

Is it now time to start opening up Utah and the country so people can get back to work?

Pignanelli: YES! Facts and the science support opening the state. We can be smart, through testing, tracing, strategic isolating and other activities to promote safety while allowing Utahns do what they do best — working hard and contributing to the community. Reopening the economy will be the best defense when the virus returns later in the year.

Webb: When all is said and done, it’s entirely possible that portions of the country will have overreacted to the coronavirus threat. But our leaders acted on the intelligence available at the time.

Once the initial confusion — the fog of war — has passed, and we have data and knowledge to understand the virus, we’re smart enough to manage the health threat and reopen the economy. We can practice proper hygiene while still engaging in activities critical to economic survival. I have no doubt we can do two things at once.

The entire scientific, intellectual and commercial might of the United States, both public and private sectors, is now arrayed against COVID-19. We have enough creativity and innovation to find solutions to effectively manage the virus and get back to work. This is a problem-solving exercise and most of the solutions will come from the private sector.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.