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Gov. Gary Herbert addresses attendees of the Utah Economic Summit on Friday, May 17, 2019. Herbert's speech focused on his belief in the free market. 

Gov. Gary Herbert signed an executive order on Wednesday allowing residential tenants who have lost their job due to COVID-19 or tested positive for the virus to defer rental payments and putting a freeze on evictions until May 15.

The governor’s announcement came during a press conference where he discussed the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Herbert said that while the state acknowledges the health threat caused by the coronavirus outbreak, “we also recognize that we have the challenges of the economy.”

“Because of the COVID-19 (pandemic), people have been struggling and their own personal economics are hurting,” said Herbert. “Some have lost jobs or had hours cut back.”

According to the executive order, which is stated to suspend “certain statutes governing eviction proceedings,” only tenants who have “suffered a loss of wages or job loss as a result of COVID-19,” undergone quarantine or self-isolation in compliance with a health department order or tested positive for COVID-19 qualify for the eviction freeze.

Additionally, it only applies to residential tenants who were “current on rent payments as of March 31, 2020.”

Deferring rent and freezing evictions for some residential tenants until May 15 would give tenants breathing room until the state receives money from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package, Herbert said, which is “going to take some time.” He added that there would be a “lag time” between the state receiving the money and it being distributed to individuals.

“This will help us buy some time,” the governor said.

Herbert said the state had talked to courts and the Utah Apartment Association before issuing the executive order.

“We think this is an appropriate, practical notice to be given at this time to help give some certainty and eliminate some confusion and apprehension and fear that’s out there in the marketplace today,” he said.

The order states that it does not “prohibit evictions for any reason other than evictions for non-payment of rent” or “create, require, or imply rent forgiveness.”

Moreover, Herbert ordered the Utah Department of Workforce Services to “offer free mediation assistance to landlords and tenants when there is a dispute whether the tenants meets the criteria” described in the order.”

“By the way, this is not (a way to) get rid of the obligation,” Herbert said. “But it creates some time and space for other measures to come into play.”

In addition to the money from the federal stimulus package, which includes a $1,200 check for individuals who make less than $75,000 a year, Herbert said the Department of Workforce Services is working on ways to assist Utahns who are struggling financially due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On March 26, the workforce services department released a report showing that unemployment claims in the state had increased 1,391% from March 15-21 and the week before.

Bill Tibbitts, associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit that on Tuesday called on Herbert to issue a statewide eviction moratorium, called the executive order “a really good move on his (Herbert’s) part.”

“There are so many people who are home sick and they’re not getting paid, there are people who are home ... because their employers were shut down,” Tibbitts said in an interview. “And if you’re an hourly employee, that means you don’t have the ability to pay rent.”

Tibbitts said preventing low- or middle-income Utahns from being evicted, and potentially becoming homeless as a result, should be a top priority for the state.

“If you have a surge in homelessness, it creates other problems, including the suffering of the people who become homeless,” he said. “I think it’s really smart to try to stabilize the rental market now.”

Allowing tenants who meet the specific criteria to defer April’s rent, which for most Utahns was due on Wednesday, and freezing evictions will benefit residents until state and federal resources become available, Tibbitts said.

“It will help our state stay a little bit more healthy and a little more safe,” he said.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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