SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said Friday that at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic the state is in a position to “maybe celebrate some of the great work that’s happened over the last two months” while taking advantage of an opportunity to rethink the future.
“While no death or illness is acceptable, we’re are in a better spot, a far better spot, than we thought we would be 60 days ago,” the speaker said in a webinar for companies dealing with the health and economic impacts of the deadly virus put on by the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business.
“Utah is doing exceptionally well. We are in the 90th percentile of states in the country in terms of how our economy is performing and in terms of our unemployment rate,” Wilson said, and viewed as one of the top three states to recover from the financial downturn.
While lawmakers are looking at cutting up to 10% from the state’s budget due to revenue shortfalls from shutting down the state to stop the spread of the virus, the speaker said what he termed “disruptive forces” are “something that we can embrace and really see the opportunity they present,” especially long term.
“The vision that at least I have for the state of Utah is we take advantage of this disruptive time we’ve got right now and sort of recast our future trajectory,” Wilson said, focusing in the next year or two on improving rural Utah’s economy and retraining the workforce as well as on quality of life issues such as recreation.
Legislative Fiscal Analyst Jonathan Ball said “there’s a political will now to examine government spending like there hasn’t been for the past decade.” It’s a chance for lawmakers to trim back some programs, he said, “then look at what we can’t live without.”
Other webinar participants did not offer as upbeat an assessment on a day when Utah officials confirmed the largest daily rise in COVID-19 cases since the outbreak began, bringing the total number of cases to 9,264, with a death toll of 107.
“This is tough for all of us,” House Minority Assistant Whip Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said. She went on to outline efforts to help communities of color and the working poor, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with food, housing, health care and technology needs.
“We have to ensure we’re protecting them but we’re also ensuring that we’re protecting our local and small businesses” where they work, Romero said. “Many times some of us are privileged enough to sit in our homes and work from home, but there are a lot of people who can’t telecommute. I represent a lot of those individuals.”
She said even though the experiences may be different in rural areas, the state needs to work together to “dismantle some of these disparities that existed before COVID-19 and how do we move forward so we’re not leaving anyone behind.”
Romero said she and Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, are working with leaders from both parties, including Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, to tap federal coronavirus relief funds to hire community health care workers.
Now Utah’s congressional delegation must step up, Romero said, and support the $3 trillion in additional relief already passed by the U.S. House. None of Utah’s four House members, including the only Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams, voted for the legislation.
Utah is doing exceptionally well. We are in the 90th percentile of states in the country in terms of how our economy is performing and in terms of our unemployment rate.
–Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson
“I know many in the state don’t like to talk about it, they like (to say), ‘We’re the state of Utah, we can do it on our own.’ But there’s a reason we’re why we’re a state within the federal government. I think it’s the role of our congressional delegation to work with us to have the funding and the resources we need,” she said.
Wes Curtis, a senior adviser to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah and an expert on rural economies, said there’s plenty to be concerned about even though that except for San Juan County, rural areas of the state have reported few cases of the virus.
The mainstays of Utah’s rural economies — tourism, agriculture and the oil and gas industry — have all been hard-hit, Curtis said, especially tourism. In Grand County, 22% of the workforce has filed for unemployment, as have 16% of the workers in Garfield County, he said.
At Ruby’s Inn near Bryce Canyon National Park, April occupancy rates were down 94% from a year ago, Curtis said, meaning that transient room taxes paid by the property to the state plummeted from $180,000 in April 2019 to just $4,000 last month.
But despite that “bleak background,” Curtis said there is a chance to open up new markets for tourism among Utahns since movies, concerts and other entertainment options are no longer available. He called for Utah to “double-down” on developing outdoor recreation opportunities.
The shift during the pandemic to working from home also presents an opportunity to encourage “urban flight” to rural parts of the state, said Curtis, who asked the state for help building up technology, coworking centers and other infrastructure in those areas.
The host of the webinar series, former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who readied the country for an Avian bird flu pandemic as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary under then-President George W. Bush, said he’s seen the resilience and adaptability of Utahns through the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s an historic fact that pandemics strike,” he said. “They come seldom enough that we forget how profound they are in shaping the world. They shape the economy, they reshape the sociology and they reshape even the politics. We have no choice but to embrace change at a moment like this.”
Leavitt said that “when it comes to that kind of change, you can fight it, and die. You’ll be overcome by events. You can accept it and have a chance. Or you can lead it, and prosper. That’s my personal motto and I leave it with you today as a testament of how we get through this together.”