SALT LAKE CITY — By the time April rent came due, Whitney Beaslin was out of work for more than two weeks.

Beaslin, a single mom and a server at the Cheesecake Factory in downtown Salt Lake City, said the COVID-19 pandemic sank her livelihood even before it shut down dine-in service last month. She had begun self-imposed quarantine in her Sandy apartment days earlier after waiting on Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the Utah Jazz players later confirmed to have COVID-19.

With Utahns like Beaslin in mind, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Wednesday a 45-day freeze on new evictions based on nonpayment in the Beehive State. His executive order also allows certain Utahns to defer monthly payments until May 15.

“This is designed to help people that through no fault of their own have lost jobs or have lost income because of the COVID-19 virus,” the Republican governor told reporters.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a daily media briefing about COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Herbert’s directive has widespread support among landlords. Some advocates for renters, however, question how much it will help struggling Utahns to make ends meet.

The move adds Utah to a growing number of states that have put a hold on evictions as millions of Americans have lost their jobs amid the pandemic. It follows weeks of calls for an eviction freeze from renters’ rights groups, Democratic lawmakers and others in the Beehive State.

The moratorium is meant to help a small number of Utahns directly affected by the virus, the governor added later Wednesday. It offers no protection to businesses who are struggling to cover commercial rent.

Evictions initiated before Wednesday will not be undone under the plan, which does not allow for rent forgiveness. Those who weren’t current on rent in March also do not qualify.

The order shields from eviction only three groups: those who lost their jobs or whose wages dropped; tenants who received a mandatory quarantine or isolation order from health officials; and patients who tested positive for COVID-19. It does not specify whether or how a person must prove diminished income.

If a landlord and a tenant don’t agree on whether the renter qualifies, the Department of Workforce Services will offer free mediation.

“This provides a measure of relief to Utahns who are undergoing periods of great disruption,” Herbert said in a statement. “If you can pay your rent now, you must do so.”

June Hiatt, an organizer with Utah Renters Together, noted that while the order prohibits evictions based on nonpayment, others may go forward based on compliance or other issues. Hiatt said she fears that will create a loophole for landlords to claim a person is a nuisance when in reality they are seeking eviction based on late rent checks.

Hiatt also questioned whether tenants will be able to get back to work and catch up enough to fork over two months of rent by May 16, when the order expires. Under the state’s economic plan, Utah will remain in the “urgent” phase until at least the middle of May.

“You can’t stay home if you’re evicted, so it feels like this isn’t addressing the public health side of this issue,” Hiatt said. “There’s nothing indicating that this is slowing down anytime soon. We’re 45 days away from this deadline, but that’s a lot of back rent and back bills to make up for.” 

Herbert said Wednesday he plans to call lawmakers into a special session to respond to the impact of the virus by the end of the month, a time Hiatt hopes legislators will use to establish a rent forgiveness program.

Paul Smith, the executive director of the Utah Apartment Association, a landlord industry group, said the move is a stopgap for only the most vulnerable in Utah.

He said he believes many view the governor’s announcement as widely available to Utahns, but that simply isn’t the case.

“The rental housing industry created this proposal,” Smith said. “We were the ones that sent this to the governor’s office and have been working with the governor’s office today. However, it’s much more narrow than is being represented.”

Smith emphasized that renters who are tight on cash should communicate with their landlords before skipping any rental payments. And many of his group’s members already are working with tenants on payment plans, he said.

In Sandy, the 34-year-old Beaslin said the longer deadline allows her to relax, at least a little bit. She has filed for unemployment and hopes to receive some money from a fund her employer has set up. She also runs a side business, baking cakes and other confections for special events.

“On one hand, I’m super excited because that takes a ton of stress off,” she said. “I’m just wondering, moving forward, when it’s all going to be due.”

Management at her apartment complex told her earlier in March it would work with her before the $1,172 rent came due on her two-bedroom apartment, but reversed the promise about a week ago, she said.

Still, Beaslin remains optimistic as she keeps busy baking and painting with her daughter, Charlotte, who is almost 2 years old.

“I have to keep myself in check. I have a daughter that I can’t break down for,” Beaslin said as she whisked together ingredients for an angel food cake.

“I have to be strong, regardless of how I am feeling.”