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'Apocalyptic Bingo': A Governor Copes With the COVID Crisis

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert took office during the depths of the Great Recession and is leaving while a pandemic is raging. For all that, he remains optimistic about his growing state.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a policy seminar, August 27, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Skip O'Rourke/Tampa Bay Times/MCT)
By now, Gary Herbert expected to be casually entering the home stretch of his career. The Utah Republican is the nation’s longest-serving current governor, but opted not to run for re-election this year. He figured he could retire in January on a record of overseeing strong economic and population growth in his state. 

“I expected to kind of wave to the crowd and take the old victory lap, because we had a lot of great successes,” Herbert says. “It’s my last year and I’m thinking, boy, we’re at the top of the mountain — and we were, back in February.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, freezing the state’s economy and presenting the governor with the greatest challenge he’d ever faced. Utah remains in the bottom 10 states in COVID-19 deaths per capita, but cases and hospitalizations have both been climbing over the past month.

Like other governors around the country, Herbert has found that it’s impossible to satisfy everyone, given the range of politicized opinion regarding the pandemic. Herbert has sought to chart a middle course, taking health and safety seriously but balancing them against his interest in keeping schools and businesses open.

In August, Utah had the second-lowest unemployment rate of any state — at 4.1 percent, just behind Nebraska at 4 percent on the dot. “It’s not only about health with the pandemic,” Herbert says. “It’s also about the economy, too. They should not be looked at as mutually exclusive ideas.”

Herbert has drawn criticism from Democrats who contend that he’s put the economy ahead of health. On Sept. 24, the Utah Medical Association added its voice to the chorus calling on Herbert to impose a statewide mask mandate.

At the same time, Herbert has had to beat back a challenge from some conservative legislators who felt the governor had too much power in responding to the health emergency. “The governor has tried to walk the line on this stuff about pushback on emergency orders, both from people in the state of Utah and in the Legislature,” says Brian King, the Democratic leader in the state House.

Aside from the pandemic, Herbert's last year has been marred by fires, drought, earthquakes, hurricane-force winds and other calamities. For all that, the governor remains optimistic that the state will recover in good time and prosper under his successor, almost certain to be Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. 

“This is still a sprint to the finish line for me,” Herbert says. “For the next four months, I’m going to work just as hard as I did the first four months.”

Career Bookended by Calamities

Herbert, who is 73, has spent the last 30 years in elective office. He served as a county commissioner for 14 years before winning election as lieutenant governor in 2004. He became governor in 2009, after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was appointed ambassador to China. (Huntsman’s comeback attempt failed when he lost the July GOP primary against Cox.)

Herbert’s timing appeared to be terrible.

“We came in at the depths of the Great Recession in 2009,” he recalls. “That was just the worst economic time in Utah’s history, really since the Great Depression.”

The state eventually pulled through. In 2018, Utah’s economy grew by 4.3 percent, which was the second-fastest rate of any state and well above national growth. The same held true last year. Utah’s GDP grew by 3.8 percent, which was good enough for a second-place tie behind Texas.

Over the past decade, Utah has experienced the fourth-fastest population growth among the states, in percentage terms. “For the most part, he has presided, until recently, over a growing state and a strong economy,” says Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah.

But it wasn’t Herbert’s fate to ride out on a high note. Having come into office during difficult times, he’ll be leaving while the situation is even more challenging. He’s confident things will turn around, but concedes it’s certainly not time to spike the football.

“Nobody ever imagined it was going to be as bad as it’s been and as longstanding as it’s going to be,” Herbert says. “Frankly, until we have a vaccine, I think it’s going to be hard for us as a state and as a country to go back to a more normal situation.”

Despite the difficulties, Herbert opposes additional federal aid for states, arguing it’s a “fairness issue” because extra money would reward those that had been “foolish,” as opposed to a prudent state like his, which maintains a triple-A bond rating. He also argues that the federal increase in unemployment benefits was a mistake, offering a disincentive toward work.

“We’ve been consistent in having this kind of conservative thought for the last 30 years,” he says, alluding to a half-dozen or so companies he’s currently wooing for expansions in Utah. “Tomorrow’s predictable; it’s not unpredictable in Utah. I think the marketplace likes certainty.”

A Personally Challenging Time

Utah may be politically and philosophically predictable, but lately there have been a series of shocks. In addition to pandemic, Utah has suffered from drought and, right around the time the pandemic hit, hurricane-force winds that overturned dozens of semitrucks. The state has experienced more than 2,000 earthquakes this year, including a serious tumbler in mid-March, just as the coronavirus was becoming a serious concern. Being a Western state, parts of Utah remain on fire. While not as dramatic or destructive as the fire season along the West Coast, Utah’s fires have still consumed thousands of acres. 

Oh, and protests, of course.

“On my apocalyptic bingo card, I filled in most everything,” Herbert jokes mordantly. “The last one I’ve got left is locusts, and if I get locusts, I’m going to yell ‘bingo!’ and it’ll be over.”

COVID-19 remains an otherwise all-consuming issue. Herbert compares his life to the movie Groundhog Day, in which the main character has to relive the same day over and over again. Every day’s an endless stream of Zoom meetings. Unable to keep up anything like his old schedule of appearing at multiple events a day, Herbert’s been practically confined to the capitol.

He recognizes the need to be careful. (Herbert spoke with Governing prior to the president's diagnosis.) Sunday dinners with the extended family are out. In fact, his wife has been spending most of her time at their house about 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City.

“She’s not getting out as much, either, and so I’m living alone more than I used to be, which is a hard thing, to not have my wife with me each and every day,” Herbert says. “So that’s been a hard adjustment.”

Not Pleasing Everyone

On Wednesday, Utah’s auditor released a “limited review” of the government’s response to COVID-19 from March into May. The auditor concluded that Utah should have been better prepared in terms of its stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) and anticipating disruptions to supply chains. The report also said that Herbert should have set up a unified command structure sooner than he did.

Herbert’s office has taken some heat for issuing no-bid contracts and also for purchasing $800,000 worth of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug touted by President Trump for use against COVID-19. The auditor’s review determined that, despite some qualms, the use of no-bid contracts was reasonable.

In an official response, Justin Harding, Herbert’s chief of staff, said that while the auditor raised some fair points, most of them were lessons the administration itself had figured out with the benefit of hindsight. He also said that awarding contracts to known vendors was a strategy that likely saved the state a fortune.

“Some states paid tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for supplies they never received because of fraudulent practices or simple inability to deliver on the part of unknown vendors,” Harding wrote. “Utah, on the other hand, received every good it purchased.”

The number of new coronavirus cases in Utah is now averaging more than 1,000 per day. Hospitals aren’t full, but they’re getting more crowded. The total number of COVID-19 deaths in the state remains below 500. “We have not had a mask mandate,” says Rep. King, “and that has led to a wider infection rate across the state than would otherwise be the case.”

While Herbert clearly hasn’t pleased everyone and has aggravated some, he’s at least paid serious attention to a variety of concerns, from health officials who want more restrictions to libertarians who view practically any government response as an infringement.

“Nobody feels like they’re completely left out of this discussion,” says Burbank, the University of Utah professor. “It’s not a recipe for making everybody happy, but at least it’s making everybody feel like they’ve got some connection to what the government’s doing.”

Herbert came into office coping with an economic crisis and is now leaving among a cascade of crises. Despite that, he proudly notes that his state is faring comparatively well in terms of both health and the economy and there should be smoother sailing ahead.

He’s looking forward to writing a book, as well as driving his own car for the first time in about a dozen years. (He’s been practicing on a golf cart.) Herbert says that, for all the problems his state is still facing, stepping down will be bittersweet.

“There’s not ever been a day that I did not look forward to going to the job,” he says. “It’s always been, even in these difficult times, a joy to come to work with my colleagues and say, ‘OK, here’s the problem, here’s where we’re at, but here’s where we want to go, and here’s how we’re going to get here.’”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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