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Utah bill spelling out ‘endgame’ for pandemic clears House, but may be in trouble

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A member of the Utah National Guard works on a computer inside a COVID-19 results tent at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to spell out the “endgame” for Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions cleared another legislative hurdle on Wednesday.

After a failed attempt by a Republican lawmaker to immediately terminate the state’s mask mandate and despite protests from Democrats, the Utah House of Representatives voted along a 51-20, party line to approve Rep. Paul Ray’s HB294, a bill that’s been under heavy negotiations with Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Department of Health.

It now goes to the Senate for consideration, but there’s a chance it could run into trouble — if not in the Senate, perhaps on Cox’s desk. Neither Senate leaders nor Cox were enthusiastic about the bill when asked about it Wednesday.

“We appreciate the Legislature’s willingness to listen to the input of public health officials and all stakeholders as they work through this process,” Cox said in a statement sent to the Deseret News. “We’re watching this bill closely because the stakes are so high for the health of Utahns. We need to get this right.”

Cox and his office have also been engaged in negotiations over another bill backed by both House and Senate leaders to place new limits on the governor’s and public health officials’ powers amid an emergency: SB195. That bill as of Wednesday was waiting to be heard by the full House.

Senate leaders were noncommittal but hinted the bill may not be necessary when asked by reporters whether it would be given a vote on the Senate floor in the less than three days left of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session. The final day is Friday.

“I’m not sure we need legislation,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a media availability, pointing to the pace of the vaccine rollout and declining case counts as indicators the state could already be “headed toward the end of the pandemic.”

“We seem to have started a pandemic without legislation,” Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said jokingly.

The version of HB294 approved by the House would declare Utah’s pandemic and its restrictions over either when the state hits a list of benchmarks — many of which the state is close to or would already qualify for — or before July 1, whichever comes first.

If or when the bill is signed by the governor, “the mask mandate is gone,” Ray said, except for in large gatherings of over 50 people in events that don’t accommodate social distancing. It would allow venues like Hale Centre Theatre or Jazz games to seat people at 100% capacity so long as masks are required, Ray said.

“This is what our constituents have been asking for. This is the endgame. What does it look like, how do we get out of the pandemic?” Ray, R-Clearfield said on the House floor.

Ray said the bill has been the product of “a whole lot of negotiation.”

“I can tell you, it’s not exactly where I’d like it to be, but I can guarantee you it’s not where the Department of Health would like it to be also,” Ray told his House colleagues.

For a lifting of other restrictions — except for mask mandates in K-12 schools until July 1 — the measures listed in the bill include if the state reaches a 14-day COVID-19 case rate less than 191 per 100,000 people, when the statewide seven-day average of COVID-19 ICU bed utilization is less than 15%, and when the state has been allocated 1.63 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Those thresholds increased from a previous version of the bill that was endorsed by a House committee earlier this week after Ray negotiated with the Utah Department of Health, which requested higher thresholds. Previously the bill would have lifted the state’s restrictions when the state reaches a 14-day case rate of less than 101 per 100,000 people, at least 1.5 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine be allocated to the state, and 15% COVID-19 ICU bed utilization.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, tried but failed to amend the bill to abolish the mask mandate statewide and in schools.

“To me, it’s cruel and unusual that we let our kids be subject to a face mask mandate at this point,” Lyman said, arguing masks in schools are not necessary to guard against a public health threat. “We have the ability to fix it here and now.”

Other Republican lawmakers argued against Lyman’s amendment, concerned it would disrupt negotiations with Cox and launch the bill toward a veto, which could instead delay rolling back of the mask mandate and lifting of other restrictions.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said it was “remarkable” and “absurd” of Lyman to characterize the requirements that schoolchildren wear masks as “cruel.”

“We’re saving lives,” he said. “It’s not ‘cruel’ to require the wearing of masks if that’s what experts and medical professionals believe is going to save lives. There’s really no doubt that wearing masks in the middle of a pandemic does save lives.”

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, spoke against the bill, calling it “too prescriptive” and “government overreach.”

“This should be left to consultation with medical experts,” Harrison said. “This is an ongoing pandemic. We all want to get back to normal, but I don’t think us legislating this prescriptive type of language is going to help our economy or the people of Utah.”  

Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, issued a statement after the House’s vote opposing the bill, worried it could risk another spike of COVID-19 cases.

“We all want the pandemic to end and having a framework for how Utah gets back to normal post-COVID is a good idea, but choosing an arbitrary end date is unnecessary and risky,” Simpson said. “After a year of sacrifices and struggles, the last thing Utahns need is to risk a fourth wave because overeager lawmakers are personally tired of the pandemic and pushed the state back to normalcy too soon.”