Governor renews emergency declaration so state can still ‘act quickly’ during pandemic, receive federal funds

ST. GEORGE — In order to preserve an ability to “act quickly” in response to the ongoing pandemic and continue receiving related relief funds from the federal government, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that he was enacting a new state of emergency order since the current one expires at midnight.

Gov. Gary Herbert addresses reporters during a return to his monthly press conferences aired over PBS-Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, Aug. 20, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Gov. Herbert’s Office/PBS, St. George News

“I’m announcing today, right now, that I will establish a new state of emergency that will take effect tonight, immediately upon the expiration of the current state of emergency,” Herbert said during a press conference Thursday morning.

Emergency declarations typically last 30 days, though Utah’s current one has lasted since early March with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most emergency situations the state has faced tend to last a few days at the most, Herbert said, though he noted language in the state statute that anticipated a long-term event like an epidemic. In that regard, a pandemic just means a worldwide epidemic, Herbert said.

“This is not as unusual as some might think,” the governor said. “I understand the concern about how long the emergency lasts, when do we get back to normal practice, and the Legislature and I have had those discussions the last few days. I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have and we’ll see where that leads.”

Some in the Legislature did not want to see the state of emergency renewed, Herbert said, yet added the state still faces challenges with COVID-19. Though the number of new infections appears to be going down, those infection rates are still too high and people are still dying due to complications brought on by the virus, he said.

Photo illustration of student wearing protective mask with a face shield on campus. | Photo by ajr_images, iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The pandemic is also impacting minority communities and there is still a need to make sure the state’s health care system does not get overwhelmed, Hebert added.

For the moment, Utah is at an inflection point where the government can step back and take pause to see what happens next, he said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet on this pandemic, even though we’re making some good headway,” Herbert said.

If the order was not renewed, Utah would be the only state in the country not under an emergency declaration related to the virus. As well, renewing the order allows the state to continue taking advantage of emergency federal funding.

At the top of the list for additional funding is the state’s National Guard, which is involved in COVID-19 testing, contacting and tracing operations. This amounts to a $13-14 million bill, the governor said. An additional $455 million is also coming from the federal government to help cover lost wage assistance in the state.

A part of the emergency order that has caused issues with some legislators is it’s giving the governor the ability to act without going through the legislative process. This entails calling the Legislature into session, going through multiple committee hearings and ultimately voting on a course of action that could take up to two weeks or more the decide on.

Photo illustration. | Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Under an emergency declaration, the governor is able to bypass this process in order to address an issue much faster, Herbart said.

“That’s why we have emergency declarations, so we can do things without having to notice up a legislative gathering, have 104 people come together and go through some hearings and make a decision that may take us two or three weeks to get to. We need to do things quickly,” the governor said.

But not everyone agrees. Bypassing the legislative process “robs the citizens of due process,” St. George Rep. Walt Brooks told St. George News Thursday.

The legislators are the ones who are able to bring the concerns of their constituents to the table as well as hear testimony from both sides of an issue during committee hearings.

“I don’t think one or two weeks of committee hearings and debate is going to make a difference,” Brooks said.

Brooks pointed to the governor’s school mask mandate as an example where he is acting unilaterally instead of allowing the Legislature to hear from both sides of the issue.

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, speaking on the floor of the Utah House during the 2018 legislative general session, Salt Lake City, Feb. 14, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

“The very nature of the pandemic is unpredictable,” Herbert said.

Which is why the government needs to have the flexibility allowed by an emergency declaration to act swiftly when deemed necessary, he added.

When asked if Herbert planned to renew the emergency order month after month as the 30-day period ran out, he told reporters that he didn’t know what the future held.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in 30 days,” Herbert said.

“There are legitimate issues as far as what are the powers when you have a sustained, long-term emergency like a pandemic. There’s also the responsibility the Legislature has to make policy. We are in the process of making sure they are informed about what we do so they’re not blindsided. … We recognize, and I think the Legislature recognizes, the need to act quickly.”

The renewal of the emergency declaration was one of seven executive orders Herbert signed Thursday and will remain in effect until Sept. 19.

These executive orders are:

  • Executive Order 2020-51, Declaring a State of Emergency Due to the Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic (replacing Executive Order 2020-1);
  • Executive Order 2020-52, Reauthorizing the Suspension of Utah Administrative Code R671-302 Regarding Public Access to Board of Pardons and Parole Hearings (replacing Executive Order 2020-3);
  • Executive Order 2020-53, Reauthorizing the Suspension of Enforcement of Provisions of the Utah Postretirement Reemployment Restrictions Act (replacing Executive Order 2020-9);
  • Executive Order 2020-54, Reauthorizing the Suspension of Enforcement of Utah Code § 32B-5-309 Regarding Ceasing Operation of Certain Retail Licensees (replacing Executive Order 2020-21);
  • Executive Order 2020-55, Reauthorizing the Suspension of Enforcement of Statutes Relating to Telehealth Services (replacing Executive Order 2020-23);
  • Executive Order 2020-56, Updating the State Facilities Face Covering Requirement (replacing Executive Order 2020-48); and
  • Executive Order 2020-57, Extending the Utah COVID-19 Level of Restriction (replacing Executive Order 2020-50).

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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