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Lawmakers to look at sending Utahns back to work

New commission would set timeframe for reopening economy

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The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers will meet in special session starting Thursday to consider shifting the state to “a stabilization phase” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that includes allowing businesses to reopen, part of a long agenda largely focused on the financial impact of the deadly virus.

“We need to be able to have our economy survive and we need to have survival of ourselves,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News Monday. “We’re going to look to try to move from an urgency phase that we’re in now to a stabilization phase. I would basically call it sustainable social distancing,”

Just when that should happen, he said, would likely be determined by a new commission made up of medical professionals, business leaders and legislators that would be established in the upcoming special session, the first called by lawmakers themselves — and the first to be held online.

But Adams said the final decision about reopening businesses and other aspects of the state’s economy would remain with Gov. Gary Herbert as part of legislation “establishing protocols, requirements, and processes to guide the state toward economic recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 emergency.”

Among the 20 other items on the special session agenda are adjusting the current state budget, anticipated to fall short because state and federal income tax deadlines have been moved from April to July and altering other tax deadlines; boosting the state’s bonding capacity; and authorizing the acceptance of federal stimulus funds.

Fixes to requirements governing both state and local government authority in a pandemic and other emergencies, aimed at the stricter stay-at-home orders imposed by Salt Lake and some other counties, are on the table, along with changes to municipal annexation requirements and urging local governments “exercise fiscal responsibility.”

New processes will be put in place for the 2020 primary election on June 30, already set to be conducted largely by-mail.

There are also changes to unemployment insurance to reduce the waiting time for benefits, expanding workers compensation to first-responders who contract COVID-19, and assistance to some Utah businesses and residents hurt by the pandemic.

Various public education requirements such as year-end testing will be waived; and bills vetoed by the governor will also be revisited, with an agenda item to create a program to provide scholarships for students with disabilities to help cover the cost of attending a private school.

Adams said setting the stage to reopen Utah’s economy will be key during the special session, expected to last several days.

“We know it needs to happen and we need to do it in the right way,” Adams said, including by having workers wear masks. “We need to have businesses figure out how social distancing can be achieved inside of their own business,” such as spreading out fewer customers in restaurants.

“The bottom line is, if we go backward, we’ll probably have to do more restrictive measures again. I think every business knows that and I think it’s in their best interest to be responsible. I think most citizens know it now,” he said, praising the compliance of Utahns to the governor’s directives.

“We have to get this economy going,” the Senate leader said. He said those 70 years or older could continue to “stay home and stay safe,” as Herbert has called for, while other residents who are less vulnerable to the deadly virus could return to work, and possibly, to school.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said the governor’s directives have been working, citing what he’s seen at his main pharmacy location, in Cedar City.

“I noticed a difference just today. I think that the governor’s directives and his press conferences and his statements are starting to resonate. Because I saw more people wearing masks,” as well as in some cases, gloves, Vickers said, and following social distancing while “being very courteous and respectful to other people.”

Other special session legislation will attempt “to take away any fear” about prescribing hydroxychloroquine and other drugs, such as Remdesivir, that have an unknown efficacy to treat COVID-19, Vickers said, as well as offer liability protection to medical practitioners treating those afflicted by the virus.

“This is something that’s been done in a number of other states to try to protect those people that are on the front lines, putting themselves and quite frankly their families at risk,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have the best medical help we can possibly give every COVID patient and we certainly don’t want anyone at risk in the medical community, either.”

Adams has advocated for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, anti-malaria drugs also touted by President Donald Trump, to fight the symptoms of the virus. He hopes the legislation “gives the medical provider the confidence that they can aggressively attack this virus and do it in a responsible way.”

The question of when the government should reopen has surfaced in the governor’s race, with former state House Speaker Greg Hughes circulating a mailer among delegates to this month’s state GOP convention calling for “responsible businesses” to reopen immediately and an end to “indefinite and broad mandatory shutdowns.”

The mailer warns, “A government-mandated market collapse is the road to socialism” and, “No public health solution is viable that leaves families in a depression.”

Hughes said in an interview that he needs “someone to be a grown-up” and tell Utahns how they are supposed to pay their bills while they remain at home, unable to work, even though they may not be viewed as vulnerable to COVID-19 after quarantining or developing antibodies.

“There’s a risk to it,” Hughes said of the virus spreading if people return to work. “But is it a greater risk than not having a job to go back to? Is there a risk greater than not being able to pay your bills? If someone thinks the federal government can print all the money necessary ... someone show me how that works. I don’t believe it.”