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Legislature, governor negotiating COVID-19 'endgame' bill

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Posted at 5:06 PM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-27 02:20:46-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would lift COVID-19 heath restrictions in Utah has now become the subject of negotiations between the legislature, the governor's office and Utah's Department of Health.

As a hearing was getting under way on Friday for House Bill 294, Rep. Paul Ray pulled it from consideration. He later told FOX 13 that he and Senate leaders were in talks with Governor Spencer Cox's office over it.

"It’s kind of an endgame," said Rep. Ray, R-Clearfield, describing the bill. "These are the numbers we have to hit in order to get rid of restrictions and get rid of the emergency."

The original version of the bill said health restrictions, including the mask mandate and physical distancing requirements would be abandoned once Utah had 1.7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine distributed or that many people had recovered from the virus, whichever comes first. A substitute version drafted now says after one million doses, hospitalization rates drop to 20% or less and the average case rate is less than 101 people per 100,000. It also allows local health departments and school districts to keep mask mandates in place in K-12 schools.

Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders said the bill was "premature."

"I think it's a little aggressive from a public health perspective," he told FOX 13.

Saunders said he was involved in talks over the bill and said what Rep. Ray is trying to accomplish is a good thing. But he warned that in addition to allowing the virus to spread further, it might leave the state of Utah on the hook for more than $200 million in costs for coronavirus testing, contact tracing and vaccination efforts.

"What this bill does is it basically says, 'Everybody jump out of the boat, we can see the shore,'" Saunders said. "But I think we’ve got a couple of miles to go."

Rep. Ray said he was pleased with the progress the state has made in getting people vaccinated. But he questioned if all existing restrictions needed to be in place while that happens.

"It’s a brisk pace and it’s much welcome, but for a lot of people, I don’t think anything is fast enough," he told FOX 13. "So we’re trying to find that happy medium we can get to that says, we’re moving fast, but the same time we’re being very careful with what we do."

Rep. Ray suggested UDOH could issue a new public health order with loosened restrictions. The latest order — which set a framework for mask mandates to be lifted in counties in the low transmission index for COVID-19 eight weeks after Utah receives 1.63 million vaccine doses — expires on March 25.

"We’re negotiating with the governor’s office, so we’ll see over the weekend if we can get some kind of health order, that kind of suffices what we’re looking for as a legislature," Rep. Ray said.

Governor Spencer Cox said Thursday that he hoped to have all COVID-19 restrictions lifted by July 4. The latest projections from the state call for that to happen sooner, as the state receives more doses of the vaccine and moves quickly through qualifying age and health risk groups.

Saunders said UDOH was seeking to find a balance.

"We just want to make sure it’s properly balanced with the science and what we’ve learned in the pandemic. The state of Utah is on an amazing rhythm right now," Saunders said. "We see the shoreline. We’re getting there. We just don’t want to disrupt that too early."

In the 2021 legislature, lawmakers have devoted a lot of time to bills addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Some rein in the governor's emergency powers and public health orders in the future. Others put limits on his ability to spend taxpayer dollars in an emergency and place restrictions on the COVID-19 vaccine itself.