Utah coronavirus testing hits another snag: an earthquake

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Damage can be seen in Magna, the epicenter of a 5.7 earthquake on Wednesday morning, March 18, 2020, especially along historic Main Street.

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Utah reported 12 more coronavirus cases Wednesday as the state’s public health laboratory stopped testing samples due to a magnitude 5.7 earthquake.

The new positive test results bring Utah’s total to 63 coronavirus cases. Of those, 10 people are considered visitors from other states or countries, according to data released by the Utah Department of Health.

There have been no reports of COVID-19 deaths in Utah.

Salt Lake County (22 cases) and Summit County (15) continue to have the bulk of the state’s coronavirus cases.

The Utah Department of Health said coronavirus testing will resume Thursday. The lab in Taylorsville was closed Wednesday to inspect for earthquake damage.

Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said no samples were being tested when the quake struck at 7:09 a.m., and no samples or equipment were damaged.

Commercial labs have been testing samples, too. Those labs did not report any slowdowns, Hudachko said.

The state’s coronavirus hotline was shut down when the call center was forced to evacuate after the temblor shook the Salt Lake Valley. A new, temporary hotline was created at 844-442-5224.

The earthquake was the latest setback to Utah’s effort to gauge the spread of the coronavirus. Screening already had been hampered by a lack of testing kits and chemical agents needed to process the kits.

The quake also complicated compliance with suggestions worldwide that people not stand closer than 6 feet from one another in public. Construction workers were seen working side by side in Magna picking up fallen bricks. Elected officials and emergency responders stood beside one another in news conferences discussing the response to the earthquake.

The Salt Lake City School District had been keeping schools open so students could pick up laptops and lunches, but the buildings were closed Wednesday to inspect for quake damage. The computer and lunch distribution is to resume Thursday outside the schools.

Otherwise, Utah’s battle against COVID-19 went on.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Wednesday that the city was working to protect vulnerable populations, including 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 — 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,” she said. “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 become established in the city “for the well-being of people on the streets.”

As experts warn that people experiencing homelessness and other populations who can’t self-quarantine may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus, Salt Lake County has secured 17 beds in two locations to house such at-risk residents who have symptoms or need to be isolated but are not sick enough to go to a hospital.

After the closure of all Salt Lake City Public Library branches — 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.

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

Harmons Grocery stores are following other retailers and reducing hours and offering exclusive times for senior citizens to shop during the coronavirus pandemic.

Beginning Thursday, Harmons 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.

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

“Our vast public lands that are overseen by the department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an announcement Wednesday.

The move also helps reduce contact between park 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.

Visitor centers, however, and other operations have been closed or greatly reduced. Zion National Park, the most popular of Utah’s “Mighty 5,” has idled its shuttle buses through Zion Canyon, prompting officials to limit, at times, the stream of cars through there.

And officials in Moab, the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national park, have urged visitors to stay away to keep from overwhelming health care services in their southeastern Utah city.

“Moab is asking people to please stay in their home community,” Mayor Emily Niehaus said earlier this week. “This is an urgent message to people considering travel to Moab.”

The Southeast Utah Health District has barred nonlocals from checking into area hotels or camping.

The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation is keeping all 44 of its parks open, although it has shuttered visitor centers at six of them.

There was another sign Wednesday that Utahns are listening to pleas to limit their contact.

“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 shutdowns are affecting traffic.

Reporters Lee Davidson, Mack Jones, Brian Maffly, Sean P. Means, Kathy Stephenson and Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.