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COVID-19 'endgame' bill passes House, faces trouble in Senate

Posted at 1:10 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 18:22:31-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill described as the COVID-19 "endgame" that lifts all health restrictions when the state hits thresholds for vaccines and hospitalizations passed the House of Representatives.

But it could face trouble in the Senate.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has been negotiating House Bill 294 with Governor Spencer Cox's office and Utah's Department of Health. FOX 13 first reported on the bill last month when Rep. Ray described it as the "endgame" to pandemic-related restrictions.

The latest version now terminates all public health orders by July 1, or sooner if Utah hits 1.6 million vaccine doses allocated and 15% intensive care unit hospitalizations.

"We'll leave the actual emergency order because that's necessary to receive vaccines at no cost and receive the vaccines," Rep. Ray told his House colleagues.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, proposed a substitute to terminate the mask mandate immediately. He questioned their effectiveness.

"There's a feeling the mask is more symbolic than functional. We're at a point now where it's turned into a stigma," he said, adding that requiring students in K-12 schools to wear it is "cruel and unusual."

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, disputed that.

"It's absurd to characterize it that way," he said.

Rep. Ray opposed the substitution, arguing that he had carefully negotiated the latest terms. Rep. Lyman's proposal was rejected.

HB294 passed out of the House on a 51-20 vote and now heads to the Utah State Senate.

But Senate Republican and Democratic leadership signaled the bill might have trouble getting through. Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said COVID-19 cases were already declining as the vaccine becomes more available and restrictions might start lifting soon enough.

"I'm not sure we need legislation," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she disagreed with setting a specific date with the virus still in the state.

"We seem to have started a pandemic without legislation," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

In a statement to FOX 13, Gov. Cox said the bill was still being worked on.

"We appreciate the Legislature’s willingness to listen to the input of public health officials and all stakeholders as they work through this process," he said. "We’re watching this bill closely because the stakes are so high for the health of Utahns. We need to get this right."