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How is Utah's economy recovering? New Salt Lake Chamber tool tracks improvement

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SALT LAKE CITY — In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, government programs that were designed to aid businesses and citizens cast a wide net. While everyone was affected by the virus shutdowns, some felt the impact more than others and were left without the help they needed. The Salt Lake Chamber is hoping to better identify those markets.

"We're smarter than we were back then, and so we know some of those relief efforts can be more targeted," said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance. "It gives us as a business community an opportunity to advocate at a local, state and even federal level for those kinds of programs."

The Salt Lake Chamber’s Roadmap to Recovery Coalition and Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute announced a new economic tool Monday called the Road to Recovery Dashboard. The dashboard will be used to track the state’s path to a full and complete economic recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

"While government performs a critical role in responding to COVID-19, private sector leadership is essential," said Salt Lake Chamber Chief Economist Natalie Gochnour. "The Salt Lake Chamber’s Roadmap to Recovery Coalition provides this leadership and will ultimately accelerate a full economic recovery for our state."

The hope is the dashboard, which will be updated monthly to provide insights and track indicators of recovery, will shed light on what sectors of the business community have recovered, at least somewhat, and which ones are still struggling under the weight of the pandemic.

The dashboard, for example, shows that 90% of downtown retail businesses are open and that Utah taxable retail sales have actually increased from the months just before the pandemic. Utah’s construction industry, which increased by 7.4%, continues to be Utah’s fastest-growing major industry over the past 12 months — that’s good news.

The bad news: The tourism industry is continuing to be hammered. While Utah officials have continually boasted about having the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, and the dashboard shows the state's unemployment rate has declined for 19 consecutive weeks, those numbers provide little relief for those in Garfield, Grand, Summit and other counties that rely heavily on visitors.

As of July, Garfield County, home to Bryce Canyon National Park, had an 11.5% unemployment rate; Grand County, home to Moab and Arches National Park, had an 11% employment rate; and Summit County’s unemployment rate was at 7.5% — all much higher than Utah’s 4.1%.

But even that relatively low number (at least for the pandemic) has some caveats. The chamber said it’s likely that many Utahns have dropped out of the labor market and are not included in the rate.

"It helps us to see what industries and, by extension, what businesses are hurting the most," Miller said.

The dashboard will provide information for employers, state leaders and employees to help make informed decisions, he said, because Utah still has a ways to go to recover. And the chamber made it clear that economic relief shouldn’t come at the expense of the community’s health.

COVID-19 cases in Utah have spiked over the last 10 days, with the state seeing its first 1,000-plus case counts in back-to-back days. In response to the spike, Gov. Gary Herbert said a mask mandate is on the table, as is the possibility of moving some areas of the state back to “orange” on the state’s color-coded scale.

"We all want to keep this economic recovery moving forward, but we can only do so when employers, employees and consumers safely engage in the economy," Miller said.

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