Robert Gehrke: Utah can get by without a shelter-in-place — for now

In this Sunday, March 22, 2020 photo, hundreds of people gather to welcome missionaries returning home from the Philippines at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Sen. Mitt Romney and Utah state leaders are criticizing the large gathering of family and friends who went to the airport when people are supposed to be keeping their distance from one another to prevent more spread of the coronavirus. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

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The scene that unfolded at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday was unfathomable, as excited family members packed together to welcome home hundreds of LDS missionaries sent home early because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

It was exactly the kind of teeming, shoulder-to-shoulder, breathing-on-each-other gathering health officials had been imploring us for days to avoid. Those families defied the instructions they had been given and, for whatever reason, the airport did nothing to disperse the crowd.

It was the kind of disregard or lack of awareness that puts all of us at risk. We might not ever know for sure if the coronavirus was spread that night, but it certainly is a possibility.

“Those types of gatherings cannot be happening. That will cause the spread of COVID-19,” warned state epidemiologist Angela Dunn.

“This is unacceptable,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted. “In a time of shared sacrifice, we must do better to save lives.”

Robert Gehrke

In the days since, there have been increasing calls on Gov. Gary Herbert to follow the lead of other governors and issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, shutting down nonessential businesses and directing residents to stay at home except to go to work, the grocery store or for occasional isolated exercise.

On Tuesday, the Utah Academy of Family Physicians, which has 1,100 members statewide, called on the governor to issue a shelter-in-place order for the state. Online petitions are circulating, as well.

California was the first to issue such an order last week and since then 16 other states have followed, along with a number of counties and municipalities. All told, The New York Times reports, 175 million Americans are now subject to these stay-at-home orders.

Conceptually, it makes sense. If you happened to venture out over the weekend and drove past any park, they were overrun — kids were playing on the petri dishes called playgrounds and there were reports of pick-up basketball games.

Some, it seems, are still not fully appreciating the consequences of poor choices or that good decisions now have exponential benefits.

That said, I’m not sure we would benefit from the type of vague shelter-in-place orders that are rarely enforced and frequently ignored. In California, for example, the beaches, parks and trails have been swarmed despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order.

To be clear, I am not downplaying the threat the virus poses. As I wrote Monday, models indicate as many as 64,000 Utahns could die if we don’t act. The state has taken the big steps, like closing schools and churches, restaurants and bars. Now, much of the tools are in the hands of the county governments.

Last week Salt Lake and Utah counties banned gatherings of more than 10 people, and included a criminal penalty. Herbert — in a mistaken move that muddled what had been a unified message — told the counties to withdraw those orders, but as of today those orders remain in effect. Summit County, which has been hammered by the virus, issued a similar order Monday.

That doesn’t mean police are going to be kicking in doors and breaking up big families. But, as Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told me, it gives law enforcement leverage to put a stop to the most egregious offenders who are endangering the public welfare.

This is the way it should be. Where closing schools and restaurants makes sense statewide, banning small gatherings may not be needed in, say, Piute County, which doesn’t have a confirmed case.

Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said they are monitoring the situation in a real-time basis and trying to make the best decisions based on the data they are seeing.

More restrictions will come and that very well may include orders to shelter in place. And the counties have to be aggressive about implementing those steps, because once the virus breaks out, there’s no catching back up.

“We would much rather be accused of overreacting and saving lives than accused of underreacting to save a few bucks,” Rupp said.

That kind of vigilance is needed from policymakers. More importantly, it’s needed from the public. The best approach at this point is to assume you have been exposed and act accordingly — wash constantly and do everything you can to avoid the potential to spread the disease.

“The better the hospitals are working and the [emergency rooms] aren’t full, the better we’ll do in people’s outcomes, so I think it’s important that we really do this as a community,” Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the infectious disease division at the University of Utah, told me. “That type of social commitment on the part of the population is what’s going to be necessary.”

If Congress could outlaw viruses — or tie its own shoes — I’d be all for it. But the reality is that laws and emergency orders aren’t really what will stop this pandemic. That job is up to us.