In Utah’s 2022 General Session, the legislature’s priorities branch out into various topics, including the Great Salt Lake, vaccine requirements and income tax cuts. Noticeably missing from the session’s agenda are COVID-19 bills to help end the pandemic. Mask mandates remain out of the question since the Utah House voted to end them entirely, with Senate Joint Resolution 3 also terminating public health orders mandating face coverings.
Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 dominates our lives. It affects our schools, our work and our family and friends. No aspect of life remains untouched by COVID-19. Because pandemic life continues to rage on, our leaders should fixate on policies and actions that aim to stop the pandemic or aid Utahns in living through it.
House Bill 11 provides an example of a bill that neither helps Utahns through the pandemic or helps end it. Sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, the bill prohibits transgender student-athletes from competing in sports designated for their transitioning gender unless they have completed a year’s worth of hormone treatment therapy.
Despite dividing Capitol Hill as a hot-button issue, the legislature should not prioritize the bill. Better policy would protect student-athletes against the virus by detecting outbreaks at school sporting events through testing. If anything, the best way to help student-athletes right now is to ensure their seasons continue in the first place. By shifting focus from transgender athletes to all athletes, Birkeland could help slow the spread in school sporting events and aid student-athletes through the pandemic.
Rep. Jefferson Burton’s H.B. 63 also fails to help us during the pandemic. The bill allows vaccine exemptions for individuals previously infected with COVID-19, provided a doctor verifies the infection. H.B. 63 goes against the direction of the CDC and expert health officials, who say vaccination after infection boosts immunity and protection against COVID-19. This bill also encourages a malicious line of thinking that goes against reducing the spread of the virus.
By offering vaccine exemptions to those with previous COVID-19 infections, we ignore our obligation to protect each other with the vaccine. We are citizens of an active community who all want to see each other survive through the end of the pandemic. To do that, we must get vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine protects us from serious health complications and death, whereas unvaccinated people are 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19. The dangerous exemption provided in H.B. 63 could incite reckless behavior and selfish disregard for our commitment against the virus. Ultimately, H.B. 63 minimizes our responsibility and fails to stop the pandemic or help Utahns in any way, shape or form.
Luckily, one piece of legislation attempts to deal with a recurring pandemic problem. Senate Bill 113, or Rep. Todd Weiler’s In-Person Learning Modifications, hopes to suspend the “test to stay” programs within public schools. It also offers additional procedural requirements for an exception to in-person learning environments. The bill could offer more resources and funding so all students can remotely learn and access their educational materials. Although the bill’s wording needs to improve so it’s less vague, S.B. 113 will hopefully pave the way for applied research into specific remote-learning environments for students. In the event of a future public health crisis, as well as our present pandemic, we can explore more methods of effective remote learning and make educational opportunities and lessons equal in access for all students.
2022’s legislative session will definitely see change — just not in the way I’m hoping for. We seem to care more about prolonging pandemic life than ending it. I can’t say I’m surprised, knowing Utah legislators have moved on from the pandemic in more ways than one. Many legislators were unmasked and not social distancing to begin the General Session. Senate President Stuart Adams opened the session despite having COVID-19. The recent selfish decisions of our legislators show constituents that they are done with the pandemic, even if we aren’t.
As a community and as leaders, we should prioritize eliminating COVID-19. All of us have expressed wanting to go back to safety and normalcy. Our current dilemma will not go anywhere until we start working to eliminate it, which requires the attention and initiative of our Utah State Legislature.