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Lawmakers push to end Utah’s COVID-19 emergency declaration

‘Time will tell’ whether Trump’s positive test could change that effort

FILE - The Utah Capitol is pictured on Wednesday, March 7, 2018, the penultimate day of the 2018 Utah Legislature.
The Utah Capitol
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the nation grappled with the news of President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 test on Friday — and as cases continue to surge in Utah — conservative Utah lawmakers are exploring an effort to end Utah’s declared state of emergency and rein in Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive powers.

Utah legislative leaders support an effort to bring what they believe needs to be better balance between the legislative and executive branch of the state’s government during the prolonged COVID-19 crisis. While they support the end goal of a resolution that’s been circulating among lawmakers to halt Herbert’s current emergency pandemic declaration, they don’t necessarily support the resolution itself as the most effective way to do it.

Rather, both House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said on Friday the issue would best be hashed out in a legislative session. Neither ruled out a special session, but they indicated the issue will likely wait until the general session in January for more comprehensive debate.

“At some point, I really believe that Utah should strive to be the first state in the country to no longer have an emergency declaration,” Wilson told the Deseret News. “And whether that time is now or sometime in the future is probably yet to be determined.

“But what you’re seeing now is a group of lawmakers — and I’ll put myself as one of them — that would like to see things get back to normal as soon as we can,” Wilson added. “With that being said, we’re working closely with the governor to strike the right balance there.”

A proposed joint resolution to end Herbert’s emergency declaration recently began circulating among Republican lawmakers. About 35 lawmakers signed on to the resolution, including six senators and 29 representatives, according to a copy of the document posted on Rep. Kim Coleman’s Facebook page.

Wilson and Adams said lawmakers held online meetings recently to discuss the resolution. While some believed it could be adopted without having to meet in a special session, Wilson said it would need to be passed in session. And even if the Legislature passes the resolution, “that doesn’t totally stop the governor from just issuing another emergency,” he said.

“Then it gets more complicated,” Wilson added, noting that health departments have the power to issue health orders, which control business restrictions and the mask mandates that are already in place in certain counties.

Both Wilson and Adams say the goal to end the state’s declaration of emergency is not about downplaying the risk of COVID-19 in Utah, but rather they say it’s about balancing legislative power with executive power in an emergency that’s lasted months, with no end in sight.

“We’re all in agreement the Legislature should actually set the policy and the executive branch should enact the policy,” Adams said. “The issue is when you’re in a prolonged emergency.”

Wilson said legislators have typically been “comfortable” with executive emergency powers during short periods of time, but that type of power wasn’t “contemplated for being in an extended state of emergency like this.”

“When we have something chronic like this this, that needs policy changes,” Wilson said.

The legislative conversation to end Utah’s declaration of emergency comes amid another statewide spike in COVID-19 cases, and as news of Trump’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis reverberated across the U.S. Utah Sen. Mike Lee also announced Friday that he has tested positive for the disease.

Asked if ending Utah’s declaration of emergency would send the wrong message to Utahns about the seriousness of the pandemic, Adams said “the message has always been” that Utahns should do their part to help slow COVID-19’s spread, and he doesn’t think ending the declaration of emergency would change that.

“Regardless of the status of emergency, I think people understand exactly how the COVID is spread,” Adams said. “If we socially distance, wear masks, try good hygiene, no matter what the status is I hope people will do their part. ... So regardless of the gubernatorial emergency powers, let’s stay focused on what matters, and that is slowing the spread.”

Both Wilson and Adams said they continue to maintain a good working relationship with Herbert while they explore these policy changes.

Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lenhardt said Friday, “We anticipate the Legislature will work with the new governor on how to best manage sustained states of emergency in the upcoming general session.”

Throughout the pandemic, Herbert has been a target for criticism from all angles. Conservative Republican lawmakers have been frustrated that the governor has exercised too much power in the state’s pandemic response, concerned that restrictions on certain businesses damaged the economy more than necessary. Others, including critics on the left, say the governor has lacked strong enough leadership to make the tough decisions necessary to clamp down on the virus, such as a statewide mask mandate.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who won the Republican nomination to become Utah’s next governor, has supported Herbert’s approach and avoided taking a different stance from Herbert on topics like mask mandates as he heads toward the November election.

The effort to end Herbert’s declaration of emergency appears to be supported by many right-wing Republicans in the Utah Legislature, though not exclusively.

Trump’s sickness

While about 85% of Democrats and those that lean toward the Democratic Party believe the coronavirus is a major threat to the health of the U.S. public, Republicans and those who lean Republican are more split: Only 46% of Republicans say they believe COVID-19 is a major threat, according to a survey Pew Research Center conducted in July.

Asked whether Trump’s positive diagnosis might impact efforts to end Utah’s declaration of emergency and change attitudes toward the seriousness of COVID-19, Wilson said “time will tell.”

“I will say this. There is a different approach and ideology to solving this problem,” the speaker said. “I really believe that if you give people good information and tools and resources they need, they will make good decisions. And using the heavy hand of government at times can be counterproductive.”

Matthew Burbank, University of Utah political science professor, said Trump’s positive diagnosis does have the potential to shape attitudes of Utahns, but that might depend on the president’s experience with the disease.

“If the president doesn’t really have any symptoms and he says, ‘I got it and it didn’t bother me,’ it might reinforce this point of view that, ‘We need to get it and get it over with,’” Burbank said, noting that that sort of thinking can be problematic, especially because so much remains unknown about COVID-19’s long term impacts.

The severity of COVID-19’s symptoms run the gamut. Some people remain asymptomatic. Some experience only mild, cold-like symptoms. For others, particularly the elderly or those with underlying health conditions, the virus can be deadly.

If Trump experiences more severe symptoms, that could reshape some Utahns’ opinions about the seriousness of COVID-19, Burbank said. He pointed to when United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive, and later ended up hospitalized because of the disease.

“People in Britain, once they saw that, many of them began taking it much more seriously and realizing just how damaging this could be to an individual,” Burbank said.

For lawmakers seeking an end to Utah’s state of emergency, Burbank said Trump’s positive test and what comes next “certainly could have an impact.”

“It may change the public perception,” Burbank said, “because if what is being seen here is, ‘We are ending a state of emergency, we don’t have to worry about this anymore,’ at the same time we’re seeing the president get this disease ... some may look at this and say, ‘This may not be the time to push ahead on this’ because the public image of that might look very different from what they’re intending.”