Utah lawmakers kicked off the 2022 general session on Tuesday with words of optimism for brighter days as Utah continues to be engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And they wasted no time prioritizing legislation to clamp down on local COVID-19 orders. The Senate voted to pass a joint resolution to terminate mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit Counties. The resolution now goes to the House, where lawmakers could vote on it as soon as Wednesday.
It’s the first of what’s likely to be several more pieces of legislation to further limit the ability of local officials to issue COVID-19 restrictions.
In his opening remarks, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, glowed over the “strong working relationship” with Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration, after lawmakers in last year’s session prioritized “balancing” legislative powers with the governor’s powers amid the prolonged pandemic emergency. The resulting legislation diluted executive and local powers, enabling the Utah Legislature to have the final say on health orders like the Salt Lake County mask mandate.
Lawmakers exercised that power in the very first day of the 2022 legislative session, despite unsuccessful protests from Democrats who argued on behalf of “local control” and listening to public health experts. But the resolution sailed through the Senate with the support of the Republican majority, which argued mandates do more harm than good by dividing Utahns.
To Wilson, that “balance” between executive and legislative branches enables a more productive dynamic.
“The level of trust and cooperation that we have between the legislative and executive branches is really unique to our state. And we’re able to manage emerging issues without turning them into nasty, unproductive public squabbles,” Wilson said. “And that is a relationship that we appreciate, we should take care of carefully, and I’m sure the people of Utah appreciate it as well.”
Wilson’s speech — though it began by acknowledging the state currently faces “real and persistent challenges,” including “depleted hospital capacity across the state and exhausted health care workers” — quickly focused on other issues facing the state like supply chain issues, workforce shortages, spiking gas prices, inflation, skyrocketing housing prices, and a shrinking Great Salt Lake amid the West’s record-breaking drought.
“We live in a time where there are widespread disagreements over government mandates,” Wilson said, adding there’s also been a loss of trust in “cherished institutions.”
“The list goes on and on,” the speaker said. “And to top it all off, it’s an election year.”
Wilson said there’s a “sense of fatigue setting in.”
“It’s enough to make even the biggest optimist among us feel optimistic about only one thing. And that’s the future of pessimism,” Wilson said.
But he sought to take a more positive tone, arguing the “Utah way” is the answer to solving tough issues and preserving Utah’s quality of life for generations to come.
“It’s said that the pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist just expects it to go away, but the realist adjusts the sail,” Wilson said. “With deliberation, cooperation and determination, we can all create the future we want.”
The rest of Wilson’s speech focused on the House GOP caucus’s priorities — water, affordability, education modernization, preserving quality of life, and “generational investments” — as well as words of encouragement to lawmakers to respond to their constituents.
“The House of Representatives cannot be driven by the talking heads on the news channels or what’s trending on Twitter,” Wilson said. “We absolutely cannot be distracted by the outrage of the day.”
Business as usual on Capitol Hill despite COVID-19
Even though the state remains in the grip of a surge largely driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, lawmakers went about their business on Utah’s Capitol Hill with fewer COVID-19 precautions than last year’s session, when lawmakers masked up and sat behind panes of plexiglass installed on each of their desks.
This year, masks aren’t required at the Capitol. Most members of the GOP-supermajority Utah Legislature went maskless. Democratic lawmakers wore them on the House and Senate floors, along with only a handful of Republicans, but by and large the chambers functioned with far fewer protections.
Behind closed doors, lawmakers were also offered the option — but were not required — to test for COVID-19. In response to a request for a tally of how many lawmakers participated in testing and if any tested positive, a House staffer declined to provide that information.
Asked about testing in an availability with reporters, Adams said a “handful” of staff members, including some interns, tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, but no lawmakers. An exact tally was not immediately available. A Senate staff member told the Deseret News those who tested positive were sent home.
Utah Senate president tests positive for COVID-19 twice
Despite testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday last week, Adams gave his speech unmasked in the Senate chambers saying he had “just recovered from COVID.”
He said Monday was his fifth day of quarantine, meaning if he no longer has symptoms he’s cleared under the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to attend the session in person.
During his remarks, Adams initially said he “tested positive, once yesterday once today,” before minutes later saying he “tested negative twice,” joking that he was making sure people were listening.
Later Tuesday, Adams’ chief of staff Mark Thomas told the Deseret News the Senate president actually did test positive — twice — for COVID-19 Tuesday morning.
Asked for clarification, Thomas said he took a COVID-19 test Monday and the results came back negative. Tuesday morning, Adams tested again and it came back positive. He took another test immediately after, and it initially appeared to come back negative.
That’s when Thomas said Adams went to the dais in the Senate chambers and made his comments about testing positive then negative. Then, Thomas said a “faint line” appeared on second test Adams took Tuesday morning, which indicated that he’d tested positive a second time Tuesday morning.
“It was certainly confusing,” Thomas said.
Adams’ spokeswoman Aundrea Peterson issued a statement Tuesday afternoon stating the Senate president’s COVID-19 test results have been “mixed” but he’s following CDC guidelines.
“President Adams has followed the CDC guidelines, and his symptoms have subsided, including not having a fever since Saturday,” Peterson said. “CDC guidelines state that individuals who test positive should isolate for five days and may resume work if fever free for 24 hours. President Adams took COVID-19 tests and had mixed results, which may have caused confusion. It’s not uncommon to test positive days after contracting COVID-19, and according to the CDC, a positive test after recently recovering from COVID-19 does not mean the individual is contagious.”
Although the CDC guidelines urge people to wear a mask for the next five days after isolating, Adams was not wearing a mask in the Senate chamber.
“I feel great today,” Adams told reporters when asked how he was feeling. He sat masked near Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who was unmasked, and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who was wearing a mask.
Utah Senate president’s opening speech
“Over the past two years, we’ve met COVID head-on and on all fronts. Though some people have struggled, loved ones have been lost and livelihoods were threatened, we have never lost hope,” Adams said in his opening remarks. “As state leaders, we’ve had to make tough decisions. We spent countless hours counseling with experts, poring over data, deliberating and praying, making every effort possible to protect lives, livelihoods and our school children, and personal liberties.”
Our health care systems are the “best in the nation” and Utah has some of the lowest case fatality rates in the country, Adams said. Utah’s economy ranks No. 1 among the states, he said.
The state should continue to take a “balanced approach,” Adams said, to the pandemic while preserving personal liberties. He said he has “full confidence in Utahns’ ability to use good judgement to make personal choices without interference from the government.”
“Government should not push personal health decisions on individuals or businesses,” Adams said. “Doctors and patients should decide what is best for individuals, not an employer or government agency,” he said.
The Senate president said he’s “hopeful” the omicron variant is “bringing us closer to the end of the pandemic.”
“Hopefully, life will return to normal in the near future,” Adams said.
While acknowledging the ongoing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Adams and Wilson focused their remarks on other top priorities, including Utah’s drought.
Adams said one of the focuses of the Legislature should be water, as “Utah’s growing numbers and drought conditions make it imperative to reimagine and reshape the way we access, use and preserve our water supplies.”
Adams said residents need to “change the way we landscape our yards and do our part to conserve water.”
The state also needs to build the Bear River and Lake Powell water projects, Adams said, adding that infrastructure will be a vital focus of the Legislature this year.
“We not only need to double-track the Frontrunner, we need to electrify it and eliminate the at-grade intersections so we can increase its speed, making it faster and more convenient than driving,” he said.
Leaders also need to connect the whole state to broadband, increase corridor preservation funding, and continue to provide resources to the Utah Department of Transportation “to build the country’s smartest and most reliable transportation system.”
Adams and Wilson also specifically said 2022 will be another tax cut year. While the governor has proposed providing tax relief to low- and middle-income Utahns in the form of a grocery tax credit, legislative leaders are more fond of an across-the-board income tax cut.
Adams also said the state will fund education at “historic” levels. Mental health resources and research will also be priorities, as well homelessness and substance use, Adams said.
Adams also decried growing inflation, which he said will leave a “devastating effect” across the country.
“We cannot let what happened in the early ’80s happen again,” he said.
The state “can and will make the move to renewables. We can make that move without increasing gas prices and crippling our economy,” Adams added.
Utah also needs to focus on getting people working again, Adams said.
“We’ve been given too many free federal dollars, which has allowed people to stay home and not work,” he said.
Adams asked those who are not working, if they can, to “get a job.”
“We need your help,” he said.