Kristin Murphy, KSL

How should states emerge from coronavirus pandemic? Ex-HHS secretary Mike Leavitt suggests experimenting

By Dennis Romboy, KSL | Posted - Apr. 16, 2020 at 7:15 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — As states wrestle with when and how to lift social distancing restrictions and restart their flatlining economies, a former Health and Human Services secretary says it might be a time to try new ways of doing business.

From high school graduations to reopening restaurants to professional sports, policymakers and others are looking to make those things happen while guarding against the spread of deadly COVID-19.

“I feel we are going to have to experiment. The reality is this is hard because there are a lot of things we don’t know about the virus. There are things we don’t know about how best to combat it,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who served as Health and Human Services Secretary in the George W. Bush administration.

“And since there’s no way until you’ve actually dealt with this for a while to know, we’re going to have to be feeling our way.”

Leavitt said he could see states introduce color-coded systems — red, orange, yellow, green — signifying how people should behave.

“In the future we may say a COVID hot spot watch and people will be staying home, and the city will shut down, the transportation won’t happen,” he said on KSL NewsRadio’s “Dave and Dujanovic” show. “This is a new risk we’re dealing with, something we’re all having to learn to manage.”

State officials Wednesday praised Utahns for following Gov. Gary Herbert’s “stay home, stay safe” directive to help flatten the curve.

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said the latest numbers on COVID-19 cases in the state are very encouraging and there is a real chance of opening parts of the economy much sooner than many expected.

“Assuming these trends continue we can start rolling back some restrictions sooner than the 8-12 week goal we set early on. Our economic team has been working on version 2 of this plan with specific details for every industry. The private/public collaboration has been amazing!” he tweeted.

Cox, who heads the state’s coronavirus response team, said the plan should be available next week depending on input from the Legislature, which called itself into a special session Thursday that could last up to 10 days.

“It will be a smart, cautious approach that still includes strong distancing/hygiene/mask measures to ensure we don’t have a spike. Business will innovate. We MUST bring back the economy,” he tweeted.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the Utah Leads 2.0 plan considers a number of metrics such as capacity to expand testing, protecting the most vulnerable and hospitals being prepared for surges to “slowly” reopen the economy.

“We need to have a very high level of prudence when we’re looking at opening up businesses to make sure that we’re taking all the steps necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19 even further,” she said at the state’s daily coronavirus press briefing.

Leavitt said society is filled with conflicting priorities amid the pandemic.

“If you’re a healthy person who’s suffering economically right now, your priority is to get back to work. If you are not suffering economically, but you worry about your health, you want to emphasize health,” he said.

“This is not a situation where you can do one or the other. We have to do both, so we’re having to find ways of experimenting with that.”

Restaurants will undoubtedly open their doors for dining in again, but the question is how soon, Leavitt said. And when they do, there might be social distancing restrictions, such as seating people at every other table and servers wearing gloves and masks.

“Ultimately, we’ll get back to the way it’s always been with higher level consciousness about our susceptibility about things like viruses,” Leavitt said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, told Snapchat’s Peter Hamby on Tuesday that professional sports could start up this summer provided there are no fans in the stands and players are kept in hotels.

“Nobody comes to the stadium. Put (the players) in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled,” he said. “Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

Community sports facilities also are taking precautions as they look to bring people back.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike announced that four city-owned golf courses that were closed over the typically busy spring break will reopen Friday with temporary safety measures to limit touch points and maintain sanitation, even down to golfers having to bring their own pencil and paper to keep score.

Dennis Romboy

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