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Timing of new restrictions has ‘absolutely nothing to do with politics,’ Herbert says

Some question why restrictions weren’t implemented until after election

SHARE Timing of new restrictions has ‘absolutely nothing to do with politics,’ Herbert says
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Gov. Gary Herbert takes during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, where he clarified the state’s mask mandate and other orders.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert insisted Monday that his decision to announce new statewide COVID-19 restrictions, days after the 2020 election, had “absolutely nothing to do with politics” and everything to do with data.

But the governor, who will be succeeded in office at the start of the new year by Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, also lamented that the COVID-19 pandemic came during a time of division, and that it’s been “exploited” by politicians on “both sides of the aisle.”

“I think it is, in fact, unfortunate that we’ve had this pandemic during a political year,” Herbert said. “I think that, unfortunately, politics has gotten in the way of maybe doing the right thing in the right way as soon as we can and uniting the public. Politics unfortunately has a way of dividing us. ... Both sides of the aisle have in fact used this as a political tool and a message to advocate for their position.

“So in a nonelection year,” Herbert added, “I think we’d have a little better time of bringing people together, which is what we need to do.”

Although the governor did not mention President Donald Trump by name, it’s his failed leadership that slowed the response of not only the governor but also the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature to the pandemic, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

“This is a matter of leadership and I definitely think there has been a failure of national leadership,” Karpowitz said. Had Trump pushed the wearing of masks and other precautions, “he would have given cover to both the governor and the lieutenant governor — and state legislator who was concerned, or whose constituents were concerned.”

Instead, the president allowed those actions to become politicized, Karpowitz said, allowing for a stalemate between Herbert and Republican legislative leaders who have long opposed additional restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.

“Support in the Legislature would have allowed him to act much earlier. I think there’s almost no question,” Karpowitz said. “It’s important, in our system of government, to take seriously what the Legislature says. They have enormous amounts of power. But it’s also important for them to take serious the warnings from public health experts and not disregard them in the name of either ideology or political advantage or anything else.”

Herbert held a news conference Monday to take questions about his Sunday night announcement of a sweeping statewide mask mandate and other new restrictions for the next two weeks, hoping to finally clamp down on a troubling spike that has put Utah among the worst states in the U.S. for COVID-19 case counts.

Pressed by reporters about the timing of his announcement, Herbert said state officials have been “following the data” while also trying to “strike the balance” between public health and economic health.

But Herbert’s new restrictions came after weeks of foreboding, data-based indications that Utah was already on a disastrous trajectory toward COVID-19 overwhelming the state’s hospital system.

The rolling seven-day average for new cases is at an all-time high in Utah of 2,437 per day. On Monday, a record 444 coronavirus patients were hospitalized with the disease in the state, 14 more than were hospitalized the previous day. Health officials including Utah epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn have been stressing for weeks that hospital staff is being pushed to the point of exhaustion, and how some intensive care units are now over or near capacity.

In mid-October, state officials changed Utah’s color-coded COVID-19 risk level system amid criticisms from health officials the system had sent mixed messages about the seriousness of the pandemic, as well as local mask mandates dependent on different areas’ transmission rates. For months, Herbert had been reluctant to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying he preferred local leaders make that decision themselves.

It wasn’t until Utah’s hospital system was on the brink of disaster that the governor resorted to a clear statewide mask mandate, limits on extracurricular activities, and halts on casual social gatherings among those of different households.

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Gov. Gary Herbert gives a thumbs up as he walks to a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, where clarified the state’s mask mandate and other orders.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Asked why he waited until now to issue these levels of restrictions, even though the announcement was preceded by weeks of concerning COVID-19 trends, Herbert said again the timing “has only to do with the data.”

That data has shown for weeks that the approach of trusting Utahns to make the right decisions, without government mandates, hasn’t been working.

“Again, this has been a work in progress since March,” Herbert said. “We wanted to have not the heavy hand of government, but the soft, velvet touch of government giving guidance and direction and letting people, in fact, make appropriate decisions. That’s worked very well. As we’ve moved back indoors with school coming (back) we’ve found that’s not working as well.”

To House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, the governor’s new restrictions are a step in the right direction. But he worries they haven’t gone far enough to bridle the coronavirus in Utah.

“This is a relatively modest measure. This is not necessarily as far as a lot of other states have gone in this issue,” he said, noting that dine-in restaurant service — while it was put on hold in Utah’s early COVID-19 shutdowns — is still allowed under Herbert’s latest restrictions.

“But I’m grateful, first and foremost, the governor went in the direction he did,” King said. “I think he should and could have done it sooner.”

King worries the time it’s taken to implement measures like a statewide mask mandate has compounded the complacency of Utahns who aren’t taking the dangers of the virus seriously.

“It should have happened months ago,” King said, worried that Utah’s COVID-19 case counts are already “out of control beyond what is manageable.” But he added he doesn’t want to be “negative” about Herbert’s willingness to move in the right direction.

“Should we be doing more than what he’s ordered? Yes,” King said. “Will this help us move in the right direction? Yes.”

Before the election, Cox said the Legislature — which now has the power to call itself into a special session — has “consistently threatened to take power away from the governor as this crisis moves on. None of this is happening in a vacuum.”

Herbert, pressed on whether the Legislature’s ability to call itself into special session had anything to do with his decision-making, said it had “nothing to do with” that, and yet again said it was based on the data. But he also noted there has been “good communication every step of the way” in weekly meetings with legislative leaders.

“We’re working together, so there’s a significant spirit of collaboration and a united front on almost all of this,” Herbert said. “People in the legislative body, some are more Libertarian on this and say, ‘Government shouldn’t do anything,’ and we think as conservatives the government should have a role to play and guide.”

King said “there’s no doubt” that the Legislature’s ability to call itself into special session has influenced the governor’s decision-making. He said the “conservative base of his Republican Party” have been a “highly energized group of people who say, ‘Over my dead body there will be a mask mandate and don’t you dare tell me what to do.’”

Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, said GOP lawmakers are willing to wait and see what happens over the next two weeks. However, Hemmert said “there was no blessing given and one was not asked for” by the governor.

The measures announced by Herbert are less stringent than what was discussed in last week’s postelection Senate GOP caucus, he said, where an order from the governor shutting down gyms and dine-in restaurants was still on the table.

Hemmert downplayed the timing of the governor’s new restrictions.

“I may be naively incorrect but this is my opinion. I don’t think this was politically motivated,” he said.

Instead, Hemmert said he believes the governor reacted to both the increased cases and the recent visit by federal health officials, including Dr. Deborah Birx, a top White House adviser on COVID-19 who has advocated for a more aggressive response to the virus than President Donald Trump.

“That all just culminated at the same time, which happened to be right around the time of the election,” he said.

So far, there are no plans for another special session before the 2021 Legislature begins meeting in late January, Hemmert said. But he acknowledged the possibility that lawmakers could decide to step in and undo the governor’s actions.

“There’s always a chance,” the Senate majority whip said. “Give it these two weeks and let’s see what happens next.”

Utah’s efforts against the coronavirus was the focus of the race to succeed Herbert, who did not seek reelection after more than a decade in office. The governor endorsed Cox, his lieutenant governor since 2013, and put him in charge initially of the state’s response to the virus.

Cox was slammed during the GOP gubernatorial primary race for what his opponents said was “politicizing” the pandemic in that role. In July, the lieutenant governor’s Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, called for a statewide mask mandate and other actions.

Peterson stopped short Monday of saying the governor waited until now for political reasons.

“I’m glad the administration is now taking some of the positive steps to protect Utahns that our campaign focused on for many months. It is odd that this action comes only days after the election,” Peterson said, urging Utahns to follow the governor’s directive.

Pressed on whether he saw the decision being made for political rather than health reasons, Peterson said, “I think I’m going to stick with the word ‘odd’ and not characterize it further than that. I think the word speaks for itself. It’s odd.”

He added, “Had we taken these steps months ago, dozens or maybe even hundreds of lives could have been saved. Now that the spread is so pervasive in our communities, it’s only going to be harder to slow it down.”

Now the governor-elect after defeating Peterson 64% to 31%, Cox said Monday he understands why the timing of Herbert’s announcement is suspect.

“I understand the question. I hate the circumstances and the timing of this. Let me say this as clearly as I possibly can, it has absolutely nothing to do with the election, absolutely nothing,” Cox told KSL Newsradio’s “Live Mic,” adding the outcome of his race was “never in doubt.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, a physician who has criticized state officials for not listening to medical expertise when making policy decisions, said she was “encouraged” by Herbert’s announcement — but she wished it came sooner.

“This is an important and necessary step. It is overdue,” she said. “Our hospitals are stretched thin. I’ve been in our ICUs, and our teams are exhausted and they are over capacity.”

Even with these new interventions, Harrison said it’s “going to take two weeks to see any impact, and that’s a challenge.” Now more than ever, she said “we really need the public to help us and stay the course.”

“We may need to take additional action depending on how much the public participates in these efforts,” Harrison said, “and what happens in the next two weeks.”