A report released on July 21 by investigative journalism nonprofit Propublica revealed how politics, rather than public health policy, steered Utah’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and made special mention of Grand County. The article, written by journalists Lisa Song and Mollie Simon, made public email correspondence showing how business leaders and bureaucrats dominated a commission set up by state legislators to guide policy decisions. The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission had only one medical professional on its 10-member team.
According to interviews with government officials, conversations within the commission revealed that public health officials were cut out of decision making and “the health of the state’s businesses was prioritized over the health of the public, as officials stopped slowing the spread of the virus and instead calculated how many sick people its health system could bear.”
While initially, Utah’s state government was early to institute restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19, cases have spiked across the state as public health restrictions have been lifted.
A bill passed by the legislature changed state law, removing the ability for local public health departments to create ordinances appropriate for their regions. The Grand County Council requested additional restrictions on hotel and motel rooms, but Utah Governor Gary Herbert denied the request. A separate request for a regional mask ordinance was approved.
Kirk Benge, director of the Public Health Department for San Juan County, was quoted as saying that Utah politicians generally “like local authority and they like local decisions. In an emergency, to immediately strip that … I felt, was a mistake at the time.”
Other concerns detailed in the piece include the high numbers of people permitted at public events and attractions, which the commission justified by stressing the use of masks.
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Investigative reporting shows early mistakes led to virus spread