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Bill on public health orders moves forward in Utah legislature

Virus Outbreak Utah
Posted at 3:10 PM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 19:48:22-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that puts limits on the governor's ability to issue a state of emergency or public health orders is advancing on Capitol Hill with bipartisan support.

FOX 13 first reported on Senate Bill 195 last week. The bill puts up a number of guardrails on the governor's ability to enact public health orders and state of emergency declarations. It is in direct response to a public dispute between then-Governor Gary Herbert and legislative leadership on COVID-19 health orders. When lawmakers sought to end his state of emergency, he allowed it to expire and then issued a brand new one every 30 days.

"We’re almost a year into this pandemic emergency," Senate President J. Stuart Adams said on Tuesday.

The bill would allow a governor to issue a state of emergency. However, only the legislature can agree to extend it and has the ability to terminate it. There's a provision for public hearings on extensions. The bill also sets limits on fines for violation of public health orders and reins in the power of some restrictions, including "stay at home" orders.

"Every power and order that the executive branch and the health department have been using, are legislative powers," Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told FOX 13. "The legislature has allowed them to use those, so I think it’s appropriate that the legislature would have oversight."

Lawmakers have complained about Gov. Herbert's public health orders, including mask mandates and limits on gathering sizes. Provisions in the bill also block restrictions on religious gatherings.

"Yes, I had some disagreements with some of those," Sen. Vickers said of Gov. Herbert's COVID-19 health orders. "But quite frankly, Monday-morning quarterbacking this, they did what they felt was appropriate. And if you look at the results we had in this state and some pressure maybe from the legislature, we’re in a pretty good place."

But the bill also allows counties to issue orders as they deem necessary. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson had difficulty getting Gov. Herbert to issue a mask mandate. He finally relented and allowed her to issue her own, then allowed other communities to do the same before finally issuing a statewide mask mandate that has been in place since November.

Governor Spencer Cox's office told FOX 13 on Friday that it is working with the legislature to find a "balance" on the bill. But some public health groups have expressed concerns about it.

"We have concerns about the ability of an elected official to override the rules and authority of a health department to make medically and scientifically based decisions in the best interest of public health," said Maryann Martindale, the executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, in a statement.

"Ideally, health authorities and elected officials would work together to make decisions that are in the best interest of the general public. We are concerned that this bill will shift the balance away from sound health-based decisions—especially during emergencies—to the whims of political influence."

Asked if the Senate was inserting itself into public health decisions, the senate president insisted they were not.

"Those policy things I think come back to those elected officials, not those appointed," Sen. Adams said. "Surely, we need to be aware. We’d have the political consequences of ignoring recommendations, but we haven’t taken them totally away."

Senate Democrats were also involved in negotiations over the bill. Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said they were in support of the bill.

"I think this bill will provide transparency and allow the public to engage and the public, I feel, haven’t been able to engage fully," she said.

The bill is expected to be heard in a Senate committee this week.