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Bills ending COVID-19 restrictions, limiting health order powers advance in Utah legislature

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Posted at 6:28 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 00:44:05-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Bills to end COVID-19 health restrictions and limit the powers of a public health order are advancing in the Utah State Legislature.

The House Government Operations Committee voted 7-3 to pass House Bill 294, which has been described as the COVID-19 "endgame" by its sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray. The bill would lift restrictions like the mask mandate and physical distancing once Utah hit a threshold for vaccines and hospitalizations.

"It ends it immediately, once we check those boxes," Rep. Ray, R-Clearfield, said Monday.

FOX 13 first reported on the bill on Friday. It was the subject of weekend negotiations between Utah's Department of Health, Governor Spencer Cox's office and the legislature. The latest version would lift restrictions once Utah hit 1.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine allocated; an average rate of 101 people per 100,000 positive cases, and an ICU utilization rate of less than 15%.

Rep. Ray acknowledged the bill made "some people nervous" but he said he had a lot of support.

"I’ve gotten nothing but positive responses from the public. 'We’re done, we’re ready, give us an end date,'" he said.

In committee, public comment was divided with even some supporters objecting to provisions of the bill. Some railed against government intrusions on freedom, while others urged support for public health orders. (As the hearing began, the committee chair had to remind some unmasked people in attendance that masks were required to attend the meeting.)

Utah Department of Health executive director Rich Saunders had been negotiating the bill, but asked it include some more time for vaccines to take hold.

"We think it’s worth the wait, give it about 2-3 weeks, to get the people vaccinated so we can get toward herd immunity," he said.

Gov. Cox's office told FOX 13 it was continuing to negotiate with Rep. Ray to find a "balance" with the policy he's proposing.

Meanwhile, a bill that would limit the governor's state of emergency powers and give the legislature more control over public health orders in the future passed out of the same committee on a 10-1 vote. Senate Bill 195 would allow a governor to issue such an order, but after 30 days it is reviewed by the legislature.

"This is really some adjustments to the checks and balances that are there," said Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, who is co-sponsoring the bill.

The bill has support of House and Senate leadership in both parties and has had little trouble getting through the session. Gov. Cox has also said he has negotiated with lawmakers on it.

A new bill introduced on Monday dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic would waive the state income tax on paycheck protection loans the government handed out to small businesses in Utah.

"Many of these businesses received PPP loans and were not expecting to get another bill from us," said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, who is sponsoring House Bill 445.

But her bill faces some opposition from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. Senate GOP leaders indicated Monday they were not inclined to push for that particular tax cut. Rep. Harrison urged small business owners to call their lawmakers and urge them to support the bill.

"Truly, we need to be helping these small businesses that have been struggling. They’re the backbone of our economy," she said.