ST. GEORGE — “Unprecedented” was a common word during the COVID-19 pandemic, including being used to describe the emergency powers used by Utah’s governor.
Emergency orders have usually been reserved for natural disasters, weather events, power outages or accidents – events that span days, if not hours.
Then came the pandemic, where an initial two-week emergency order declared by then Gov. Gary Herbert on March 12, 2020, stretched far beyond into extended orders, then new orders that left some in the state Legislature wondering if they had enough say in how the state has dealt with a pandemic that has left 1,890 Utahns dead, including 224 in Southern Utah.
A bill by a Cedar City senator that was passed unanimously by the state Senate and is expected to reach the House floor is aimed at fixing the balance of state government through long-term emergency orders, especially when they involve public health.
Emergency Response Amendments, designated SB 195 in the 2021 Legislature and sponsored by Republican Sen. Evan Vickers, was passed unanimously by the Senate on Tuesday and has moved to the House Government Operations Committee, which includes local Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George.
Vickers said several legislators didn’t feel like they had the information they needed regarding the Utah executive branch’s orders and actions during the pandemic.
“This is a box we need to check.”
Vickers was a critic of mandates and restrictions created by Herbert, including government restrictions on restaurants and the mask mandate. Vickers has said he is not against the wearing of masks and physical distancing, just that it should be left to people to do those actions rather than government mandating it.
In Senate committee hearings last week, Vickers emphasized that while he doesn’t agree with all of the moves made by Herbert or his successor Gov. Spencer Cox, he praises the overall job they’ve done. He said his concern was that after the initial public orders, there were not hearings where decisions involving the pandemic could be discussed with the public.
“There was a lot of fear and anxiety among individuals,” Vickers said, adding that there was not a proper public discourse on what needed to be done to stem the virus. “We didn’t do that. We just had exchanges through social media.”
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, a supporter of the bill, said giving legislators more say in the emergency order process gives more power to all Utahns.
“Politicians are beholden to their constituents. They want positions of why decisions are being made,” Escamilla said. “Right now, we are not part of that process.”
SB 195 would limit the governor and/or the Utah Department of Health to a 30-day time limit for a public emergency. After that time, the order is subject to the overview of a legislative committee, which must approve any continuation of the order. A majority vote of both houses of the state Legislature can also terminate a public health order before 30 days, and the Department of Health would not be permitted to reinstate it.
Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, who is the floor sponsor of the bill in the House, said the goal is not for the Legislature to usurp the powers of the governor or ignore the expertise of public health officers but to put a check on it.
“In the first 30 days, the governor has open rein to do what he wants,” Peterson said. “Same with the state health department. We’re not looking to change that. What we’re looking to do is get the public and state legislature involved.”
Vickers said most of the emergency power statutes were written in the 1950s, and he has been working with other legislators, as well as Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, for the last six months on refining the legislation into something that could ultimately be signed by Cox.
The current governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill if it passes the House.
“There’s been a lot of changes at our request,” Cox said last week during the taping of his monthly PBS Utah press conference program. “When the final version comes out, I’ll let you know if I support it or not.”
Cox cautioned about “overreacting” to what he acknowledges were mistakes communicating with the Legislature. As Herbert’s lieutenant governor, Cox was the point man on Herbert’s COVID-19 task force and also worked with legislators throughout the pandemic – a job he has now handed off to Henderson.
“There’s this belief that governors love emergency powers, but Gov. Herbert had to make quick decisions trying to strike a balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods,” Cox said. “The Legislature gives this power to the executive to make quick decisions because there’s nothing quick that happens in the Legislature.”
There is also the fear expressed by some in the medical community that as far as present and future pandemics are concerned, the bill may shift the planning to deal with the spread of disease from physicians to politicians.
Michelle McOmber, chief officer of the Utah Medical Association that represents physicians in the state, told the Senate committee that recent changes to the bill make it more palatable for those in the epidemiology field, though she emphasized there not only needs to be a balance in governmental branches but a continued balance between the safety of the public and the needs of commerce.
“We do think this bill strikes a pretty good balance. Our concern is with some of the timelines for medical decisions,” McOmber said.
She also countered the argument that government should not play a role in protecting the public and the argument that individuals should be in charge of their own health.
“Yes, they’re in charge of their own health, but when that health or pandemic can affect other people by their decisions, there needs to be an appropriate balance of science and medicine in those decisions.”
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