Utah’s COVID-19 Community Task Force, which was created in March to respond to the outbreak of the coronavirus, has been reduced to an “as needed” body by Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration. The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases in Utah is spiking and health officials are warning that the state may have to reimpose restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus.
The task force, led by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is made up of top health and public safety officials as well as lawmakers and other community leaders. UtahPolicy.com is told the group held a brief meeting on June 9th, two weeks ago, and has not met since.
The news that the task force is being sidelined comes as the state is experiencing a dramatic spike in the number of coronavirus cases. The Salt Lake Tribune reports Monday that State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn, who is also a member of the coronavirus task force, sent a memo urging Gov. Gary Herbert to return the state to “orange” restriction level if the number of new cases does not fall below 200 new cases per day by July 1. Utah reported 444 new cases of the virus on Monday.
An email that was sent to task force members on Monday, June 15, and obtained by UtahPolicy.com, explained that the change was being made to free up the schedules of the task force members.
“After consultation with Governor Herbert and senior staff within the Executive Branch, we will be transitioning our COVID-19 Community Task Force Meetings to occur on an as-needed basis,” wrote Tyler Cain, Executive Assistant to Lt. Gov. Cox.
“Please know the Governor and Lt. Governor still welcome your insights and feedback — your guidance will remain critical as we continue to address the COVID-19 outbreak,” the email continued.
“It is our intention to alleviate you from this weekly calendar commitment and return this time to you. The Governor and Lt. Governor will consult with individual members when they deem it necessary, and call collective meetings when prudent/warranted.”
It’s not clear what decisions the task force made during their regular meetings. A source with knowledge of the group’s meetings described the body mostly as a “rubber stamp” for whatever Gov. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Cox wanted to do.
“They were touted as the task force with all the experts,” said the source. “We never took a vote on anything. They came in, told us what was going to happen and asked if we had any objections.”
For instance, in a text message chain for the task force, one member raised an issue with Gov. Herbert’s June 12th decision to issue an executive order keeping most of the state at a “yellow phase” through June 26th.
“Don’t you think as a task force that we should have been part of the discussion on extending yellow through the 26th?” they asked.
“That has not been the role of the task force previously and we don’t envision the task force playing a role in that sphere going forward,” was the reply from Justin Harding, Gov. Herbert’s chief of staff.
Harding’s response made it clear the task force was being sidelined and the governor’s office would rely on other experts for their decision making going forward, including the legislature’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which was created during the April special session to respond to the virus outbreak.
“Among the local departments of health, the Utah Department of Health, the newly formed commission, and the elected leadership of the various entities, we have a solid, data-informed approach that has yielded strong recommendations and actions,” wrote Harding.
Harding declined to comment for this story.
Kirsten Rappleye, chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Cox, said even though the task force as a whole is being downgraded, they still consult with individual members as the state’s response to the virus has changed.
“It’s important to remember that the task force was set up as an ad hoc group to advise the governor,” she said in a text message. “While the nature of our whole operation has changed, the governor has also used the task force in many ways throughout the last few months. It’s been a learning process for all of us, but mostly we are grateful that such a comprehensive group of community leaders is there to advise us, individually or as a whole.”
While the community task force has been pushed into the background, the new legislative commission has been meeting weekly, but took the last few weeks off because of the looming June special session. Lawmakers met last week to slash the state’s budget in response to the economic downturn.
UtahPolicy.com is told that the group met with Gen. Jefferson Burton, who is coordinating day-to-day operations in the Utah Department of Health during the outbreak, prior to last week’s special session.
During that meeting, the commission voted to recommend to Gov. Herbert that the state move to a “smart green” status. Herbert “hesitated,” with that recommendation according to a legislator who is part of the commission, then decided to move to “green” risk in counties where the health officials/local government requested it.
“With our recommendation that we go smart green at county officials request, we see our work is done — if we all go to smart green then we are there,” said that lawmaker.
The “smart green” risk phase will allow nearly all businesses to make a plan to reopen safely, but not return to pre-pandemic activity.