A Year Apart: How COVID-19 Changed The Game In Utah Politics
In March 2020, the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Utah. Since then, the state has seen more than 382,000 infections and more than 2,000 Utahns have died from it. Now, after a year apart, KUER is sharing stories about how the coronavirus changed everything.
One of the most prominent stages on which the pandemic has played out is politics. KUER politics reporter Sonja Hutson helped break down how Utah’s political landscape was affected.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What are the main places in politics where you can really see the impact [of COVID-19]?
Sonja Hutson: I think there are three main areas the pandemic impacted. One is the relationship between the legislature and the governor's office. The second is the relationship between the state government and local governments. And the third is the way elections are run.
CB: Let's start with the tension between the state Legislature and the governor's office. From the start of the pandemic until January 2021, former Gov. Gary Herbert was in office. When did the tension between his office and lawmakers start?
SH: It started pretty much immediately. The Legislature very quickly found out the governor's office had some emergency powers related to a pandemic they maybe weren't aware of. They really had an issue with the fact that sometimes they found out about executive orders through the news, after they had been issued or just a couple of minutes before they were issued. That really bothered lawmakers. They wanted to feel more involved in that process.
As a reaction, there was a bill in a special session in April  that required the governor to give lawmakers more notice about these executive orders. There was also a bill that created a task force of lawmakers to advise the governor on pandemic restrictions. The Legislature kind of took a pause in subsequent special sessions and negotiated with the governor's office for a bigger package of bills related to this balance of power.
CB: What policy changes came as a result of those negotiations?
SH: First is the Emergency Powers Act. It allows the Legislature to override public health orders and lets local governments do the same with orders from local health departments. It also closes a loophole that lawmakers really didn't like when it came to emergency orders from the governor. So under this bill, the governor's office can't reinstate a new executive order for the same disaster after the original one expires.
CB: There was also some strain between the state and local governments. This played out early on with mask mandates and enforcement. It was probably most prominent, though, with school reopenings. How did that play out?
SH: At the beginning of the school year, when we were first having discussions about whether to let kids back into the classroom or continue all distance learning, the decision was made to let local school boards decide. The state health department also gave out some guidance to schools. All districts except for Salt Lake City returned to some sort of in-person learning.
Some state lawmakers didn't like that Salt Lake City wasn't bringing kids back into the classroom. There was a big fiasco with teacher bonuses at the beginning of this year where [lawmakers] passed a bill that would give bonuses only to teachers in districts that had offered in-person learning — which really singled out Salt Lake City. That was a way to pressure the district to bring kids back to school, and it worked.
CB: On top of a pandemic, 2020 was also a big election year. Utah elected a new governor. There was a presidential election. The list goes on. The pandemic really upended the normal ways we campaign and vote. What were the biggest disruptions?
SH: Very early on [in the pandemic], there was a competitive Republican primary.
One of the ways that you can get on the primary ballot is to gather enough signatures to meet certain thresholds. That process was obviously majorly disrupted by the pandemic, which really upset a lot of political candidates. That primary was also entirely a vote by mail election, which was the first time [Utah has] done that. It went off pretty successfully.
Candidates also had to make some adjustments to the way they campaign. There were virtual campaign events and also controversies over whether to have in-person events or keep everything virtual.
The pandemic also became a huge political issue in lots of different races. Even when we leave the pandemic behind, I think it's an issue that's going to come up for a while in political debates and in campaigns in the future.