By Brice Wallace

Some state economic officials are cautioning the public that the impacts of COVID-19 — and businesses’ response to them — are not going away anytime soon.

Speaking at an online Newsmaker Breakfast, presented by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, those officials warned to not expect a return to “normal,” whenever the virus situation passes, and pointed out that Utahns might be misunderstanding what a move to “green” means on the color-coded dial that state officials have used to depict the level of economic openness in response to the virus.

“I fear — I think — we’re losing the messaging battle just a bit,” said Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “I think people see ‘green’ and they say, ‘Well, the state’s saying everything is normal, the storm’s gone and we’re ready to go back to life as it was in January.’

“That’s not what green is. And the move to green and the pondered move to green and all of thinking and data and everything that goes into that decision, is not saying that we’re returning to normal, and I think that’s part of the message that we’re starting to lose a little bit.”

Green instead should reinforce the idea that the virus “is a lifestyle and we’re going to have to learn to live with this,” regardless of whether the terminology is “new green,” “normal green” or “smart green,” he said.

“Whatever adjective you want to put in front of ‘green,’ we’re going to have to live with coronavirus,” Hart said. That means protecting vulnerable populations and implementing lessons learned during the past few months, including encouraging good hygiene and physical distancing, wearing masks, and having businesses take extra precautions to protect employees and customers.

“So I hope that as we consider this move to green, we realize that it’s not a return to what it was, but we’re having to live with this and we’re learning to live with this and this is the new normal that we’re going to have to learn to live with over the next few months. It’s not saying we’ve beaten this, by any stretch. …”

Theresa Foxley, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, said the goal is to reopen the economy in a safe way, “to re-engage in the economy in a new way and in a way that is very different than it was in June of 2019 or even January of 2020.”

Miles Hansen, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah, said Utah has been focused on managing risk. A few months ago, the virus risk was high and the state’s ability to manage the risk was low. While the risk has remained, the ability to manage it has improved, he said.

“Some people, I’ve heard, believe that we’re not going to be able to revive the economy until the risk goes away,” Hansen said, “and I think we recognize the risk is going to be here for some time to come. …”

Still, he said, Utah’s situation is relatively strong, “which I think puts us in a position to prosper, relative to others, even better than what we saw a few months ago, when we all know the trends were looking so, so good,” he said.

Foxley said the state, which for so long had been working to manage growth, now has a task in the short term to stimulate demand for products and services, which would enable affected businesses to bring back employees they had furloughed because of the virus’ impacts.

That can happen only if employees and customers feel safe to return to those companies, where the use of Plexiglas dividers, masks and sanitizing cleaners will become commonplace. “This is a new social contract, that we all rely on one another to keep each other safe,” Foxley said.

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