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Pandemic ‘endgame’: Utah House to hear bill laying out the end of COVID-19 restrictions

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Gov. Gary Herbert, right, speaks during a press conference in the Emergency Operations Center at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to lay out the “endgame” for the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah is headed to the full Utah House of Representatives.

Rep. Paul Ray’s HB294 won endorsement from the House Government Operations Committee on a 7-3 vote on Monday, despite concerns from health officials — including the state’s own Utah Department of Health.

“What we’re looking towards is the endgame,” Ray, R-Clearfield, said. “How do we get out of the pandemic? How do we declare these things are over?”

Ray is running HB294 to lay out those guidelines for when the state of Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions — including mask mandates, business restrictions and social distancing requirements — end.

“So what this bill is proposing is, basically, at what point do we say, ‘The emergency order stays because we need that for the vaccines ... but we get rid of the restrictions that go along with that,’” Ray said.

Ray’s bill has what he called a “checklist” of metrics the state of Utah would need to reach to qualify — many of which the state is close to or already would qualify for.

In a version of the bill endorsed by the House committee Monday, SB294 would declare Utah’s pandemic over when the state reaches a 14-day case rate of less than 101 per 100,000 people, or under 2,900 cases. As of Monday, Utah’s 14-day case rate was around 654, Ray said, “so we’re well under the 2,900.”

The bill would also require less than 15% COVID-19 utilization of intensive care unit hospital beds. “As of today we’re at like 13%,” Ray said.

Lastly, the bill would require at least 1.5 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine be allocated to the state. As of Monday, “we’re close to 900,000 at this point,” Ray said.

“Once we reach those parameters then restrictions are gone,” he said.

Ray said he’s still negotiating on what to do about mask mandates in schools, but he’s “leaning heavily towards” an amendment on the House floor to allow local school districts to opt out of the mask mandate.

Ray’s bill drew a mix of public reaction, from those against mask mandates and government control, to those concerned that the bill would end Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions too early. Multiple times, lawmakers asked a handful of people who showed up in person to support the bill to put their masks on.

“In America, we should allow people to govern themselves and decide what risks they want to take and what risks they don’t want to take because there are no laws we can pass to save everyone from disease and death,” said DaLane England, who weighed in virtually.

Sara McArthur Pierce, who wasn’t wearing a mask but rather a plastic face shield, cleared her throat as she sat down at the microphone.

“Excuse me. It’s allergy season, not COVID, I can assure you,” McArthur Pierce said before she expressed concerns “about the abuse of power that we are seeing in regards to extending a state of emergency.”

Christy Cushing, representing the Utah Public Health Association, urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, pointing to data and science measures.

“This past year has shown us how interconnected public health is with the economy and how our choices and decisions directly correlate to daily and weekly case counts and the positive trends,” Cushing said. “My concern is the policy should be less about what Utahns can or can’t do related to their own vaccination status ... but more about the safety of our families, our neighbors, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers who may still be vulnerable to the virus.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, who said she was speaking personally and not on behalf of the Board of Education, urged lawmakers to oppose the bill. She called the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic almost a year ago “traumatic” and “something I’ve never faced in my decades as an educator.”

“So I made it my mission to ensure this year our students could be back in school, that they could do so safely,” she said. “I am concerned about the possibility of undoing the great work that has been done by focusing on masking, hygiene and all of the health protocols we put in place.

“We’ve been following the science, the data, and I implore this committee to think about getting across the finish line,” Dickson said.

House Minority Assistant Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, asked Ray what “science is being drawn on to make these decisions” outlined in the bill.

Ray said the measures were negotiated down from metrics provided by the Utah Department of Health. “Now we’ve moved the numbers around,” he said, noting that the department first requested 6% for ICU bed utilization, while Ray proposed 20%. The 15% figure was the middle ground. As for vaccination counts, Ray said the health department proposed 1.63 million, while he proposed 1 million. The middle ground Ray is proposing is 1.5 million vaccinations.

Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders still had misgivings with Ray’s bill.

“One of the things this bill doesn’t address is the large events, gatherings in big arenas and big venues, where masses of people come together,” Saunders noted.

Saunders also said the health department recommended a 1.63 million vaccination threshold because that was based upon about 70% of the state’s adult population, a figure the state is aiming for to achieve herd immunity. Saunders said the difference between 1.63 million vaccinated and 1.5 million vaccinated would be “probably worth the wait” because it would only mean the difference of about two to three weeks.

“Pulling back too early and letting these large gatherings take place — side-by-side seating and filled completely — is a concern to public health,” Saunders said.

Saunders said Ray’s bill does pose a good question — at what point should decisions again be made at the local level?

“We are in favor of that at some point,” Saunders said. “Is it now? Is it later? I don’t know. But it could be a good time to do that given we have the vaccines on the rise and we’re doing so well with those.”

Ultimately, the House committee voted to endorse the bill.

“I think we’re all looking forward to getting rid of the masks. I’ve already got a mask burning party planned at my house,” said Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, though he added, “We don’t do it until it’s OK.”

The House committee also voted to clear the way for another bill — one that has been closely negotiated with Gov. Spencer Cox and his team to limit the governor’s emergency powers and give the Utah Legislature more control over public health orders.

SB195, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, stems from the power struggle that persisted between Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, lawmakers refused to extend Herbert’s pandemic emergency order, leading the governor to issue new emergency orders each time they expired in order to keep them in place.

Vickers’ bill would limit the duration of a public health order to 30 days. It would also only allow the Legislature to extend or terminate an order, and would give lawmakers the power to end an emergency earlier than that 30-day time period. It would also prohibit the governor or the health department from declaring a new emergency for the same issue unless there are exigent circumstances like a “significant change” after expiration that “substantially increases the threat to public safety or health,” according to the bill.

Cox told reporters last week his team was still working on some tweaks to the bill and they were “really close” on arriving at an agreed upon version.

The bill now goes to one of its final legislative hurdles: the House floor.