Summit County councilors criticize speed of state’s reopening, saying it ‘borders on lunacy’
Summit County elected officials spoke out strongly Wednesday against the speed with which Gov. Gary Herbert has reopened the state amid the coronavirus pandemic, calling the pace irresponsible and not based on science and saying it could lead to more deaths in Utah and imperil the Park City area’s economically crucial ski season.
“It’s time to say it. The governor’s moves thus far, going red to orange, two weeks later or so going orange to yellow, and conversations almost immediately thereafter starting about transitioning down to green … borders on lunacy,” County Councilor Roger Armstrong said during a public meeting, referring to the color-coded phases in the state’s pandemic response plan. “And at the very least shows a high level of irresponsibility, in my mind. We’re seeing the results of that now. The entire state is seeing remarkably — remarkable upturns in cases.”
The state has seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases, logging more than 200 new confirmed Wednesday for the eighth straight day. Before the recent surge, it had been nearly two months since Utah had eclipsed that mark.
Armstrong went on to say that the state’s actions have sent the message that danger from the virus has passed.
“I’m very concerned about the direction we’re going statewide, and some of that involves relaxation from residents because we’re literally telling them it’s less risky,” he said.
Each of Armstrong’s fellow councilors, save for Chris Robinson, said they agreed with his remarks to some extent.
A representative from the Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Summit County has consistently pushed to maintain stricter measures to fight COVID-19 than much of the rest of the state, including seeking and receiving an exemption in mid-May to remain in the more restrictive “orange” phase for an additional week while most other counties moved to the “yellow” phase.
The county has at least twice pushed up deadlines to align with the state’s timeline for reopening, including lifting its stay-at-home order two weeks earlier than the original May 15 target.
The comments at Wednesday’s council meeting were the most unvarnished that county elected officials have made on the state’s handling of the pandemic. They came during debate over a vote on whether to remove the county’s ban on special events permitting.
Councilors voted 3-2 to remove the ban, with Armstrong and Councilor Glenn Wright in opposition.
In discussing whether to lift the ban, councilors appeared to express frustration with a recently announced proposal to move the state into the green, “new normal” phase as soon as Friday.
On Tuesday, the state’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission unanimously voted to recommend moving to a “smart green” phase. The commission advises the governor on coronavirus-related policies.
In justifying the recommendation, the commission stated that 99% of people recover from COVID-19 and that the state maintains capacity in its hospitals and intensive care units. It further stated that social distancing efforts were intended to preserve hospital capacity, and that that had been achieved.
“The Commission will continue to review data to safely take our state to a new phase and allow our economy to move forward,” said Jefferson Burton, co-chair of the commission, in a press release. “I encourage all Utahns to maintain social distancing, wear face coverings and practice good hygiene that has allowed our state to get to this point.”
Herbert has not announced a plan to move the state into the “green” phase.
Armstrong questioned whether the commission would give different advice if it included more representatives from the health care community, a point Council Chair Doug Clyde seconded.
The 10-person commission has two representatives from the health care industry, including one doctor. The commission also includes at least three members with ties to the business community and three state legislators.
Clyde said the residents of Summit County would bear the brunt of a rushed reopening because it could imperil the upcoming ski season, crucial for the area’s economy.
While most councilors appeared to agree that the reopening has come too swiftly, many said they were hesitant to use the county’s political capital to request an exemption from the governor to keep the special event permitting ban in place when it might be necessary to request exemptions to state health orders in coming months.
County Health Director Rich Bullough said he agreed that the state has moved too hastily.
“We’re going to be faced with surges late into the summer into the fall, and I say that not with certainty but with a certain level of confidence, based on modeling,” Bullough said. “And I believe there’ll be times then when we’re going to be asking for exemptions and we’re going to be asking perhaps to go to orange more quickly than other communities. … If we get to that point, we’re going to need all the political capital we can muster.”
Bullough has said that hospitalization is a lagging indicator of the disease’s spread in the community, coming weeks after a surge in cases has hit.
Clyde took issue with the commission’s use of hospitalization and intensive care unit capacity as a metric to judge the pace of reopening.
“When we hear things from the Governor’s Office and the commission about what’s happening with our COVID rates and the fact that we have excess hospital capacity, that can disappear in the blink of an eye,” he said. “And if you want to know what that’s like when hospital capacity goes beyond its limits, you only have to look at what happened in New York. … Hospital capacity is a transient thing and when you lose it, people will die.”
Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the roster of the governor’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission. There are 10 people on the panel, not 11.
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