SALT LAKE CITY — After having one of the most vibrant economies in the country for years, the Beehive State is now working to regain some of the momentum lost due to the overwhelming effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that most of the state is slowly beginning to reestablish some of its former footing as businesses reopen and rehire furloughed employees, the question many state leaders face is how to do so in a responsible manner.

With much of Utah in yellow low-risk status, there is a push from some to move ahead to the green or “new normal” risk phase. However, that sentiment is not shared in all segments of the business community.

“We’re losing the messaging battle, just a little bit. People see green and they say that everything is normal, the storm is gone and we’re ready to go back to life as it was in January,” said Ben Hart, deputy director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “That’s not what green is. The pondered move to green and all of the thinking, data and everything that goes into that decision is not saying that we’re returning to normal. That’s the message that we’re starting to lose a little bit.”

Hart was among a panel of state leaders participating in the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s monthly Newsmaker Breakfast. He joined three others Tuesday for an online dialogue focused on how to rebuild Utah’s economy in the wake of the dramatic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Among various topics of concern were plans on how Utah could capitalize on major economic forces that will be reshaping the world, as well as how to ensure the state’s economic remake can deliver long-term benefits for all Utahns.

“We’re going to have to live with coronavirus and that means we’re going to have to protect our vulnerable population,” Hart said. “We’re going to have to also make sure that we’re doing the things that we’ve learned over the past three months. Masks, for instance, are not a 2020 sort of activity, they’re going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”

He said the “new normal” will have to include good hygiene, physical distancing and other precautions developed during the pandemic to enhance public safety.

Panelist Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, noted that Utah Leads Together — Gov. Gary Herbert’s comprehensive task force plan to mitigate the economic consequences of COVID-19 — addresses numerous issues critical to getting Utah’s economy back on track.

“We know that there is a crisis of confidence that we need to overcome, which is that individuals need to feel safe and secure in these environments and in their ability to earn in the future,” she said. “That will help them spend money and engage in the economy. They also need to feel like when they reengage with the economy and they return to restaurants or maybe take their family on an overnight stay, that they can do so without negatively impacting their health.”

She said among the first orders of business for state leaders is to stimulate demand in the economy and then consider autonomy for individuals.

“If that demand is created, then those furloughed employees may come back,” she said. “In many ways, perhaps the most important thing is ensuring that companies who are reengaging and who are opening their doors again have the right community protective equipment, and that they can design engineering controls within their business (for safety).”

Panelist Byron Russell, co-chairman of the Utah COVID-19 Task Force Multicultural Subcommittee, said planners and employers have to strongly consider the health and welfare of their employees and their families in order to overcome the “crisis of confidence” that exists in the minds of many Utahns concerned about the potential impact of introducing the “new normal.”

“I think about putting people on the front line to go into these industries to feel safe, come home to their families and worry,” he said. “There are going to have to be a lot of innovative approaches on how even your business, your company, your employer is making you safe.”

View Comments

“We should allow our state to work with our companies, our businesses, our employers to make sure that industry and those employees feel safe. Otherwise, they won’t want to go into work,” Russell said.

Regarding the state’s efforts to reestablish international trade connections between Utah businesses and foreign partners, Miles Hansen, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah, said international trade and investment is still fundamental to the growth of the local economy.

“Here in Utah, international sales adds $5 billion in annual revenues to these small businesses,” he said. “Over the past couple of years, Utah has the highest export growth rates in the country.”

He added, “It’s really important to go back to remember how important trade and commerce and free open economies have been for Utah over decades and creates so much prosperity for so long,” Hansen said. “Even as we adjust to the new reality we’re working in, we need to make sure that we’re continuing to engage in a really correct way and we are doing so as a state, through virtual trade missions or matchmaking.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.