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Utah legislature to consider limiting public health order powers

COVID-19 mask generic
Posted at 7:25 PM, Feb 12, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill introduced in the Utah State Legislature would limit the governor's powers in a state of emergency, particularly when it comes to public health orders.

It's in response to a very public spat between former Governor Gary Herbert and lawmakers over COVID-19 health orders. After refusing to automatically extend his COVID-19 health restrictions, Gov. Herbert let them expire — and then issued new ones every 30 days.

Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, lets a public health order be issued for 30 days. However, the bill allows only the Utah State Legislature to extend it or terminate it.

"The Legislature, by joint resolution, may extend a public health emergency for a time period designated in the joint resolution," the bill states.

The bill also authorizes county councils to do the same for orders issued by county executives. It also cuts a mandatory $10,000 fine for health order violators and makes it discretionary, prohibits restrictions on religious groups from gathering, and prohibits restrictions on people's activity unless it's issued by a county executive.

Sen. Vickers was not immediately available for comment on Friday night.

"We are continuing to work closely with the legislature to find the right balance and policy," Governor Spencer Cox's office told FOX 13.

Reaction to the bill was mixed.

"These reasonable reforms will help minimize executive abuse in the future and ensure that the people’s representatives have the ability to protect our rights while balancing them against any perceived emergency," the libertarian-leaning policy group Libertas Institute said Friday night, announcing its support for the bill.

The Utah Academy of Family Physicians said it was concerned.

"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 group's executive director. "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."

Some lawmakers have fumed over COVID-19 health orders, including physical distancing limits and mask mandates that were implemented by Gov. Herbert. One local elected leader in Piute County compared Gov. Herbert to Nazi leader Adolph Hitler when mask mandates went into effect.

Lawmakers have pointed out Utah's state of emergency laws were not designed for a pandemic. The governor repeatedly pointed out his orders are constitutional.