Coronavirus in Utah: Why the Beehive State is one of the last in the nation without a stay-at-home order

Mayor of Utah’s densest county calls for statewide order

SALT LAKE CITY — As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to trouble the world, Utah remains among a handful of U.S. states that lack a statewide stay-at-home order.

Thursday — the day the worldwide tally of COVID-19 cases surpassed the staggering 1 million mark — the mayor of Utah’s most population-dense county issued a call for that statewide order to further require all Utahns, urban and rural, to do their part to limit the disease’s rapid spread.

“The virus does not recognize county lines,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said.

Calling Utah’s hospital system “connected,” Wilson noted some rural counties have no or limited intensive care hospital beds and may need to turn to the Wasatch Front hospital system for help.

“And that is why this is so critical,” she said. “We need a statewide stay-at-home order.”

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Gov. Gary Herbert last week directed Utahns to “stay safe, stay home,” but did not issue a statewide stay-at-home order like those set by at least 38 other states as of Thursday, according to the New York Times. Utah is among 12 states that have either no statewide orders or patchwork directives from counties that have issued their own unique orders.

Asked about Wilson’s call for a statewide order, Herbert’s spokeswoman Anna Lenhardt said the governor’s “stay safe, stay home” directive makes it clear that all Utahns should stay home as much as possible. He expects all Utahns to comply with that directive.”

Last week, Herbert said a shelter-in-place order, as some neighboring states have enacted, “sounds a little bit more like a World War II effort,” adding that he’s concerned it would create fear.

“We just think this is a better way to approach it, a more positive route,” the governor said.

A sign in the window of The Store & Gift Shop in Ogden indicates that they are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Thursday, April 2, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Herbert’s directive has urged Utahns to voluntarily social distance and discouraged gatherings of 10 or more people, but he did not set any penalties for people who don’t obey. He’s left it up to county officials to individually decide whether they want to back the order with the force of law.

Some Utah counties have.

Health departments in five of the state’s counties — Salt Lake, Summit, Davis, Utah and Wasatch — have built on Herbert’s directive and issued more strict versions of stay-at-home orders that prohibit what they define as nonessential travel and shut down businesses defined as nonessential.

Though the specifics of stay-at-home orders can vary, it generally allows people to still leave their homes for tasks like going to the grocery store, doctors visits and socially distant recreation activity. Shelter-in-place orders, like those seen in California’s Bay Area, are more strict, and fall just short of a lockdown, which would forbid people from leaving their homes without explicit permission.

New York Times

All public health orders in Utah are subject to the force of law. State code classifies the offense as a misdemeanor (class B for an initial offense and class A for repeat offenses), but different government officials have taken varying approaches to enforcement. In Salt Lake County, the mayor has emphasized education over penalty, directing police to enforce violations first with warnings. But she has said repeat or egregious offenders may be charged.

Health departments across the state — including Tooele, Weber-Morgan, TriCounty (Daggett, Duchesne, Uintah counties), Southwest Utah (Carbon, Emergy, Grand counties), San Juan, Central Utah (Juab, Millard, Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne counties) and Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich counties) — have taken their own approaches to public health orders meant to complement Herbert’s directive, but don’t go as far to define nonessential travel and businesses.

Still, those orders encourage Utahns to stay home as much as possible. However, the patchwork nature of Utah’s orders have stoked confusion among some Utahns, who must refer to their respective local health departments for clarity on what is or isn’t allowed.

“It’s been tough to see it county by county,” said Ryan Smith, owner of the flower shop Posy Place in Ogden. “I think it would have been better for everybody to be on the same page and do the same thing. ... We wouldn’t have to worry about what the next day would bring.”

Smith, whose shop is under the jurisdiction of the Weber-Morgan Health Department, said business has been “a little bit uncertain” for weeks as he waited for clearer orders on whether he should shut down or remain open. That’s also confused customers, who Smith said have dwindled as unrest over COVID-19 grows.

Smith said he’s had to furlough employees, and as of Thursday, it was down to just him and a delivery driver. After the Weber-Morgan Health Department issued its order Thursday, Smith learned his business could remain open as long as he continued practicing social distancing of at least 6 feet between people.

It’s still a tough time for him and other business owners across the state, but Smith said he’s happy he’s able to continue selling flower arrangements — especially for lonely or sick family members.

“It makes me feel good we’re able to be here and bring some brightness to these darker days,” he said.

Ryan Smith, owner of Posy Place in Ogden, works on a flower arrangement in his shop on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Smith said he is trying to do his part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by offering contactless delivery and curbside pickup while still keeping the doors to his business open, but expects more restrictive orders to be issued for businesses in the near future. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Wilson, in her call for a statewide stay-at-home order, said her own county is seeing a projected slowing of the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We know that these additional methods are flattening the curve,” she said. “We have more evidence that stay-at-home orders are working.”

The county has compiled and analyzed data that proves social distancing is helping. “We now have a hill, not a Mount Olympus,” Wilson said.

To pundits, it’s no surprise Utah is one of the patchwork states to not enact a statewide stay-at-home order, as a state with a wide range of urban and rural communities.

“We have more evidence that stay-at-home orders are working.” — Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson

The governor’s decision not to issue a full stay-at-home order is “a recognition that while the vast bulk of the state tends to live in a very few urban areas,” others are in a different situation, said Matthew Burbank, University of Utah political science professor.

“If you do a statewide order, you’re saying to people all over the state, here are the rules you should live by,” he said. “It’s not clear in every single county that’s going to be the most sensible thing to do.”

That’s put Herbert, a Republican, in a tough spot — and one that has political implications.

Burbank said Utah is still a state where “particularly people on the right side of the spectrum, which is again most of the governor’s supporters, are going to look at this and say, ‘Is this really necessary?’”

Burbank pointed to other states, like Florida, where “clearly it’s a difficult issue.” Other states like New York and California, which are more accepting to big-government actions, “that’s a little less problematic for them to do that.”

Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said unlike other states, Utah “really does have a tremendous diversity of communities,” from Summit County’s international ski destination to Moab’s hot tourism industry.

Diehl attributed Herbert’s decision against a statewide order to what he called the governor’s “core philosophy” of favoring “locally executed policy.”

“The governor has always approached policymaking at a state level with a no-one-size-fits-all approach,” Diehl said.

Diehl said COVID-19 has created a “very unique challenge” for local health departments and local elected officials “that are on the front line, and so the governor wants to be supportive of those front-line efforts, but provide sufficient flexibility for local governments to take appropriate actions for their particular communities.”

But Diehl acknowledged the patchwork nature of orders has caused some confusion for Utahns.

“That’s a challenge that the lieutenant governor, the governor, the state task force, health departments, counties and the general public are trying to tackle in real time,” he said.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said there’s long been a debate in Utah and the U.S. over “the proper role of government.” The debate over the level of restrictions governments are enacting to tackle COVID-19 is the latest example.

“We have a subset of politicians, particularly in our state, who believe that the government really has no role in people’s lives,” Merchant said. “I think that my response to that, and what most Utahns’ response to that ... would be, ‘No, there’s a proper role for government to play. This is showing that’s the case.’”

Asked if he believes Herbert’s decision not to issue a full stay-at-home order is a political calculation, Merchant said, “Look, I’m sure there are plenty of people who think that,” but he added, “I’m not going to be cynical about it.”

“I do think someone like Gov. Herbert has a difficult role because we have areas that are highly populated and we have other areas that are not highly populated and have not been particularly affected by COVID-19 yet,” Merchant said.

Merchant credited Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, both Democrats, as well as Summit County and Wasatch County leaders for taking “very bold and courageous steps, things that some people probably aren’t happy with but that they know are in the best interest of their communities.”

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Wendy Leonard