Live coronavirus updates for Wednesday, March 18: McAdams tests positive for COVID-19, housing lenders suspend evictions

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) Masked travelers stand in line with luggage before getting to the ticket counter at the Salt Lake City International Airport Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Salt Lake City. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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It’s Wednesday, March 18. We’ll provide the latest coronavirus updates involving Utah throughout the day.

[Read complete coronavirus coverage here.]

8:19 p.m.: New executive orders allow electronic meetings and restaurants to return alcohol

Gov. Gary Herbert issued three executive orders Wednesday night to help the state government continue running during the coronavirus pandemic — and assist businesses that can’t.

The first order will allow restaurants to return product to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control without restocking fees. Diners and cafes have been forced to either close up or serve only grab-and-go meals during the outbreak. And being able to get money back for unused bottles of wine or beer could be crucial.

The second and third orders focus on public meetings. One will allow people to watch Board of Pardons and Parole hearings remotely. That keeps the discussion open and transparent without having large groups gathered to attend in-person. The other will allow local governments to hold their meetings online as long as they post appropriate notice.

“Even though we have implemented many changes in recent days to introduce more social distancing in Utah and slow the spread of novel coronavirus,” Herbert said in a statement, “state government is still open for business and dedicated to serving Utah citizens.”

Courtney Tanner

7:26 p.m.: Do seasons affect how COVID-19 spreads? U. gets a grant to find out

The University of Utah received a grant Wednesday to study how changing seasons may affect the spread of the coronavirus.

The grant was awarded by the National Science Foundation and given to the U.’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. The researchers involved will look at the structure of the virus and test how it withstands humidity and different temperatures.

“The idea is to figure out what makes this virus fall apart, what makes it tick, what makes it die,” said Michael Vershinin, an assistant professor and co-principal investigator of the grant, in a statement. “This is not a vaccine. It won’t solve the crisis, but it will hopefully inform policy decisions going forward.”

Courtney Tanner

7:07 p.m.: Company is giving away free cooking kits for kids

Got bored kids?

On Thursday, Raddish Kids, a children’s cooking subscription, is giving away 25,000 kits — for $4 shipping — to families impacted by the coronavirus. The promotion begins at 9 a.m. on the website. Only one per household.

The kit is called “Swedish Eats” and features recipes for popular Swedish dishes as well as a kid-sized cooking tool, activity card and apron. “Raddish hopes these free kits are a helpful resource for parents,” the company said in a news release, “and inspire family togetherness during this period of social distancing.”

Mack Jones

7:01 p.m.: LDS missionaries serving in Africa to be relocated

Due to new governmental regulations in Africa, Latter-day Saint missionaries serving in most nations there “who are not native to those regions will be temporarily moved,” according to a Wednesday news release from the church.

Those who come from outside that continent will “return home to self-isolate for 14 days.” After that, they will receive new temporary assignments in their home countries “based on capacity and need,” the statement said.

Missionaries from Africa will be assigned to work in their home countries. Those who are unable to return to their home countries “due to travel restrictions,” the release said, “will continue serving in their current location.” These measures apply to all 34 missions in Africa except in Botswana/Namibia, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.

— Peggy Fletcher Stack

6:35 p.m.: McAdams tests positive for coronavirus

Washington • Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, says he has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the second member of Congress to confirm similar results within hours.

“Today I learned that I tested positive,” McAdams said in a statement. “I am still working for Utahns and pursuing efforts to get Utahns the resources they need as I continue doing my job from home until I know it is safe to end my self-quarantine. I’m doing my part as all Americans are doing to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.”

Rep. Chris Stewart is “healthy and feeling good,” his spokeswoman Madison Shupe said. Sen. Mitt Romney said earlier this week he and his family have not had any symptoms. His office confirmed Wednesday night he is feeling fine. Sen. Mike Lee’s office said he’s fine as well.

The House is currently out of session. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said earlier Wednesday he had also tested positive.

Thomas Burr

5:30 p.m.: Traffic plummets on I-15

Social distancing is a little easier on Interstate 15 in Salt Lake County, which has less traffic thanks to sheltering at home.

“In data for Tuesday, traffic was down 15% to 20%,” said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason. He said the department will be looking at trends over larger areas and longer periods to see how the shutdowns are working, but that gives a taste.

“I don’t know if people think it would be more than that,” he said. “But that is significant for a weekday.”

Lee Davidson

4:33 p.m.: Utah banking official says reserves are strong

Longstanding emergency plans for keeping Utah’s banks open and running are kicking in.

A top Utah banking official sought Wednesday to reassure customers that authorities see no cash shortage on the horizon and bank reserves remain strong, even as a series of community plans are being triggered by the global emergency.

“Banks have spent many years and millions of dollars to prepare for this event,” said Howard Headlee, director of the Utah Bankers Association. “Working together, we will recover as strong as ever.”

Unique to this crisis, Utahns were being urged to use electronic payments where possible as opposed to cash, for the safety of banking employees and to curb a possibility of the virus’ spread on paper currency.

Utah’s banking industry — the fifth largest in the country — has capital reserves on hand to weather the crisis, Headlee said, and is prepared to ”provide every Utahn safe and secure access to their money and stand at the ready to provide credit and other financial services that will be necessary to facilitate a strong recovery.”

Banks are also ready, Headlee said, with plans for deferring mortgage payments, modifying loans and offering relief on some fees while also preparing to funnel new low-interest loans to the state as they are approved by federal authorities.

Businesses and individual borrowers slammed in the pocketbook by problems related to the spread of the COVID-19 virus were urged to contact their bank as soon as possible.

Banking branch locations in the meantime are staying open across Utah, Headlee said, though that remains at the discretion of health officials.

To slow the virus, customers are being asked to use drive-thru services for banking where that’s an option.

Tony Semerad

3:41 p.m.: Mayor says Salt Lake City and county working to protect homeless population

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Wednesday that the city was working in conjunction with the county to protect vulnerable populations, like people experiencing homelessness, from contracting the coronavirus.

As part of that process, Mendenhall said the city collaborated with the Salt Lake County Health Department to conduct a cleanup Tuesday of encampments on 500 South at Library Square downtown — an area she said had begun “exhibiting very similar characteristics to 500 West before Operation Rio Grande.”

“It grew to include people who were not homeless but were coming to buy drugs and use drugs and participate in the social atmosphere that was happening there,” she said during a virtual meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial board Wednesday afternoon.

“I was told a drug dealer had their own tent that was set up on a permanent basis there. And the health risks for people camping on the street and the general public grew significantly in the last couple of weeks."

Going forward, Mendenhall said the city, homeless street outreach teams and the county intend not to allow encampments of 10 or more people to establish in the city “for the wellbeing of people on the streets.”

As experts warn people experiencing homelessness and other populations who can’t self quarantine may be more vulnerable to coming down with the coronavirus, Salt Lake County has secured 17 beds across two locations to house vulnerable people who are exhibiting symptoms or need to be isolated but are not sick enough to go to the hospital.

Following the closure of all Salt Lake City Public Library branches Sunday — one of the few public spaces where people experiencing homelessness could wash their hands — the county has also placed temporary restrooms and sanitation stations outside Library Square.

Taylor Stevens

3:34 p.m.: Utah public universities and colleges postpone graduations

Graduation ceremonies have been postponed at all of the state’s eight public universities and colleges.

The Utah System of Higher Education made the decision Wednesday as the coronavirus spreads across the state and country.

Each of the schools have already closed their campuses and moved classes online.

Southern Utah University was the first to announce the news, noting: “We are deeply sorry to our SUU Class of 2020 for this & are looking at other options to celebrate you.”

The University of Utah quickly followed with the statement, saying the move was hard but necessary. “This has been a unique and trying semester for all of us,” said U. President Ruth Watkins in a note to students, “and this decision was made with the health and well-being of all members of our campus community and their loved ones in mind.”

It’s unclear when each college or university will reschedule the ceremonies.

Courtney Tanner

3:30 p.m.: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac won’t be able to foreclose or evict for at least two months

Two of the country’s largest housing lenders — and the backers of home loans for thousands of Utahns — have been ordered to suspend foreclosures and evictions for at least 60 days in light of the coronavirus emergency.

The suspension, effective immediately, applies to homeowners with mortgages backed by government-sponsored lending programs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, equal to about 44% of the U.S. mortgage market.

The announcement comes days after federal housing offered payment forbearance to borrowers hit by the COVID-19 crisis, letting them suspend mortgage payments for up to 12 months due to hardship caused by the virus.

Additional information is available at FHFA.gov.

Meanwhile, housing advocates with Utah Housing Coalition and others have called on Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force to explore temporary moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures for other borrowers — and for thousands of Utah renters — in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and recent Utah earthquakes.

Tony Semerad

2:25 p.m.: Makers of Five Wives Vodka to donate profits to Utah bar, restaurant workers

Ogden’s Own, the producers of Five Wives Vodka and Porter’s Whiskey, will donate all of its profits from March and April to employees of Utah’s bar and restaurant community affected by the coronavirus, officials announced.

The company will work with other businesses across the state to distribute the money and identify other ways that the distillery can help.

“Ogden’s Own is, above all else, a local business. Restaurants and bars are the fabric of our community and the backbone of our spirits brands,” said Steve Conlin, CEO and co-founder of the distillery. “In these difficult and uncertain times, it’s our hope that our efforts can contribute to supporting those whose livelihood is affected by business closures and restrictions and inspire other companies to do the same.”

Mack Jones

2:20 p.m.: Saturday’s Rio Grande Winter Market canceled

The annual Rio Grande Winter Market canceled its gathering for Saturday in order to promote social distancing and help curb the spread of coronavirus.

“We feel it is in the best interest of the public and our vendors to be prudent and cautious at this time,” said Alison Einerson, executive director of Urban Food Connections of Utah. “Future markets will be considered on a week-to-week basis.”

Einerson said the market isn’t closing for the season entirely, but that it’s an option if it becomes necessary.

For now, organizers are following federal and state guidelines for containing the virus.

Urban Food Connections of Utah will be updating its website frequently with information on accessing locally sourced food from vendors affected by the closure.

Mack Jones

2:15 p.m.: Harmons changes store, pharmacy hours

Harmons Grocery stores announced Wednesday that it will reduce store hours — as well as offer exclusive hours for senior citizen shopping — during the coronavirus pandemic.

Beginning Thursday, stores will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Chairman Bob Harmon said in a company news release, “so our associates will have adequate time to restock the shelves while practicing social distancing,” which health officials have said helps stop the spread of COVID-19.

The change, he said, also will help ensure that the stores are thoroughly disinfected and cleaned.

Pharmacy hours also will change to Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition, to ensure the elderly, disabled and immunocompromised community members have access to the things they need. Harmons stores will open one hour early on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. exclusively to serve these at-risk customers.

Pharmacies will also be open for the extra hour on Wednesdays.

Smiths Food & Drug stores in Utah started early-shopping hours for seniors, as well

Mack Jones

2:11 p.m.: National Park Service drops entry fees

The National Park Service is waiving entry fees at all its parks and other destinations that charge such fees.

“This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible national parks,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an announcement Wednesday. “Our vast public lands that are overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.”

The move also helps reduce contact between parks staff and the public, reducing the risk of transmission of the coronavirus during the epidemic now affecting most of the nation.

While recreation sites are shutting down everywhere, most national parks remain open, including all of Utah’s.

However, Grand County, a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, has closed or severely limited all businesses that accommodate visitors and banned camping in an effort to protect Moab.

The camping ban issued Tuesday by the Southeast Utah Health Department, includes Emery and Carbon counties, as well as Grand.

It captures six popular states parks, which are closed its campgrounds. Those parks are Deadhorse Point, Green River, Goblin Valley, Millsite, Huntington and Scofield.

There is little camping taking place this time of year at Millsite, Huntington and Scofield, which are all on reservoirs. But the other three are popular camping destinations in the spring and the division is alerting reservation holders that they cannot camp at those parks while the Health Department order is in effect, according to State Parks spokesman Eugene Swalberg.

The park service will post updates on its response to the coronavirus and advises visitors to check with individual parks’ websites for specific details about park operations.

The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, which operates 44 parks, has made no similar move. The agency is keeping all its parks open, although it has closed visitor centers at six parks

Brian Maffly

1 p.m.: Dominion to donate $1 million to relief efforts, stop nonpayment disconnections during outbreak

Dominion Energy says it will halt disconnections for nonpayment during the pandemic and will restore gas service for people who have already been disconnected.

Dominion is the major natural gas provider to homes and businesses on the Wasatch Front and the latest utility to say it is forgoing disconnections as people lose employment during the pandemic.

Dominion also said it will donate $1 million to coronavirus relief efforts. Anyone who wants their gas service restored is instructed to call 800-323-5517.

Nate Carlisle

12:58 p.m.: Utah now has 63 cases of coronavirus

Utah has 63 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, latest figures from the Utah Department of Health show.

UDOH’s update Wednesday reports that 53 Utah residents have tested positive for coronavirus, plus 10 nonresidents. That’s 12 more residents than were reported Tuesday.

Sean P. Means

12:30 p.m.: University of Utah says quake has not hampered its coronavirus response

University of Utah Health has closed some buildings to assess them, but said Wednesday’s earthquake has not affected its response to the coronavirus.

The Redwood Health Center, South Jordan Health Center and Farmington tent locations are still taking in patients who have called ahead to test for the virus.

Officials have closed the Sugar House, Madsen and Greenwood health centers, as well as the School of Medicine, for evaluation, according to a news release. All other hospital services are operational, although limited to patients with urgent, emergency needs because of COVID-19 precautions.

“This has been a challenging time and today’s earthquake has, no doubt, created more anxiety for some,” the statement read. “We are prepared and ready to respond to the community’s needs. We will manage the events of today and continue to work with the community on the COVID-19 epidemic.”

There are no reports of injury to patients or staff. Its emergency command center has been activated, and blue medical tents have been placed in front of the University of Utah hospital as part of standard earthquake preparedness.

Paighten Harkins

12:15 p.m.: ARUP Labs continues coronavirus testing despite quake

Privately run ARUP Laboratories has been testing some COVID-19 samples for the state of Utah, and ARUP spokesman Brian Jackson said the earthquake did not cause the lab any adverse effects.

“We are operating normally and are here to serve patients and clients,” Jackson said in a statement. “All overnight shipments arrived before the earthquake and the temporary closure of Salt Lake City International Airport.”

The Utah Department of Health says its laboratory has stopped testing coronavirus samples because of Wednesday’s earthquake.

The lab, located in Taylorsville, was being inspected for any earthquake damage, according to a daily news release.

UDOH said Wednesday afternoon that is is cleared and will resume testing operations tomorrow.

Once the structure is determined safe, testing will resume. The news release said no samples or equipment were damaged in the quake.

The state health department has canceled its daily news briefing and said the news conferences will resume Thursday.

Public and commercial laboratories in Utah have tested 1,222 people for COVID-19, the Utah Department of Health has said.

That number comes with a big caveat: Some commercial labs aren’t reporting negative tests; only positives. So the number of those tested is likely far higher, the department said.

Nate Carlisle

Noon: Officials say they are handling coronavirus plus earthquake

Utah’s emergency responders were tested Wednesday morning, as they dealt with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Utah’s largest earthquake since 1992.

Gov. Gary Herbert said at a news conference that crews and officials passed the test. He called the earthquake’s timing “extremely bad,” but said the state has been preparing for the big one for a long time.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown reiterated the capital city is “prepared and trained to handle multiple emergencies like we’re experiencing today.” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urged everyone to stay put as crews respond.

”The added benefit, of course, is you minimize your risk of exposure to COVID-19," she said.

If residents need help, Brown said, they can use online reporting tools or the non-emergency number, (801) 799-3000. Those with an emergency should call 911, he said, and should tell the dispatcher if you’re sick.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said Utah hospitals are all open, working and able to address people’s needs — whether it’s emergency services because of the earthquake or COVID-19 testing.

Taylor Stevens and Paighten Harkins

11:30 a.m.: MountainStar facilities are continuing some surgeries

While University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare have postponed all elective surgeries because of COVID-19, hospitals within MountainStar Healthcare will still perform some scheduled surgeries, according to a statement.

“We believe decisions regarding scheduled procedures should be determined by a number of factors,” the statement read, “including the urgency of the procedure, the clinical judgment of our physicians as well as the current circumstances in the facility and the community.”

In the statement, the healthcare provider said it was following preparedness guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and has been reinforcing its infection prevention protocols.

MountainStar Healthcare operates hospitals from as far north as Logan and Tremonton, running south through the Salt Lake Valley to Payson. Hospitals include Ogden Regional Medical Center, St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and Timpanogos Regional Hospital.

Paighten Harkins

11:10 a.m.: Utah liquor stores will cut hours due to coronavirus

Utah liquor stores from Logan to Draper and from Heber City to Tooele will be closed Wednesday to check for structural damage from the morning’s 5.7 earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.

Bottles tumbled off shelves and racks at some liquor outlets from Wednesday morning’s jolt, but all stores are being inspected for damage. The warehouse for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has also been shut down due to broken bottles and a broken sprinkler line. No injuries have been reported to DABC employees.

Stores in Utah County, Vernal, Moab, Price, Cedar City, Hurricane and St. George will remain open at normal hours Wednesday. But starting Thursday, liquor stores able to reopen will have shorter hours, from noon to 7 p.m., due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff shortages from COVID-19 are forcing the shortened hours at state-run stores.

“No DABC employee has tested positive for the disease at this time,” spokesman Terry Wood said in a news release. “Should a store employee test positive, that store will be shut down, employees sent home to quarantine, and the store sanitized so it can be reopened as soon as possible.”

All DABC stores are practicing “social distancing,” so the number of shoppers allowed inside and in lines will be limited.

“Customers should be aware they may be asked to remain outside briefly,” Wood said. “ … Customers are being encouraged to use credit cards for purchases and discouraged from using cash.”

Employees will be wearing sanitary gloves and sanitizing checkout areas after each transaction.

Kathy Stephenson

10:30 a.m.: More schools cancel meal service due to earthquake

Several school districts have canceled meal and education services that were ongoing during the two-week dismissal of classes due to coronavirus.

Granite School District announced it was suspending both breakfast and lunch service on Wednesday; the district previously had planned to proceed with lunch service but later canceled it.

Weber, Salt Lake City, Canyons, Ogden, Jordan and Davis school districts also canceled meal service, along with St. Francis, Excelsior and Leadership Learning schools.

In addition, Salt Lake City schools canceled distribution of computers and schoolwork, which was planned for Wednesday.

These districts and schools are still serving: Tooele, Alpine, Millard, Provo, Summit Academy, Ascent, Davinci Academy, Bonneville Academy.

Erin Alberty

8:35 a.m.: Earthquake disrupts coronavirus services in Utah

An earthquake Wednesday morning in Salt Lake County disrupted some coronavirus-related services in Utah.

The Utah Coronavirus Hotline was shut down due to evacuations at the call center, the Utah Department of Health reported on Wednesday. A temporary COVID-19 Information Line is now available at 1-844-442-5224.

Some school districts canceled services they had planned to provide to students while classes are dismissed due to coronavirus.

Salt Lake City and Weber school districts both canceled meal services on Wednesday. Salt Lake City schools also canceled distribution of computers and schoolwork, which was planned for Wednesday.

Canyons, Murray and Weber school districts have also canceled lunch pick-ups as they check their buildings for damage. Granite School District has canceled breakfast at its schools, but it anticipates lunch pick-up continuing. Granite School District canceled breakfast service but anticipated lunch pickup would continue as scheduled.

Erin Alberty and Courtney Tanner

7:08 a.m.: Casinos close in West Wendover and across Nevada

The roulette wheels have stopped spinning in West Wendover, Nev., because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Peppermill Resorts announced its three casinos — Peppermill, Rainbow and Montego Bay — closed at midnight Wednesday morning. Its restaurants will close at noon Wednesday, and the three hotels will shut down Thursday at 6 p.m. The closures are for 30 days, the company said.

Maverick Gaming announced it has suspended all operations at its two locations, the Wendover Nugget and Red Garter, indefinitely.

The closures are in line with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s order Tuesday to shut down all nonessential businesses by noon Wednesday. Sisolak ordered all casinos and gaming machines to be shut down by midnight Wednesday morning.

Sean Means

10:37 p.m. Tuesday : Cox dispels misinformation amid outbreak

Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox sought late Tuesday to debunk what he called “crazy rumors” amid Utah’s part of the worldwide coronavirus scare in recent days:

  • No, Gov. Gary Herbert isn’t getting ready to shut down highways or interstates.

  • No, too, on any plans for gasoline rationing. (Gas is at a price low in fact, Cox noted.)

  • And no, he said, there are no statewide isolation orders being contemplated.

“As challenging as this is for all of us, we make it more challenging when we share things that just aren’t true,” Cox said in a casual online chat from his Fairview home.

Tony Semerad