Utah governor asks, Salt Lake City mayor orders residents to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert makes a few comments about the evolving economic situation associated with COVID-19, in a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, Friday, March 20, 2020. On Friday, March 27, 2020, he was expected to give new guidance to residents and businesses.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Shortly after Gov. Gary Herbert asked Utahns to immediately begin staying home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a similar directive to residents in the capital city.

While compliance with Herbert’s sweeping guidance is voluntary for residents statewide, the emergency order Mendenhall signed Friday carries the same restrictions but makes compliance mandatory for city residents. And any violations are eligible for a charge of up to a class B misdemeanor.

“This is about saving lives,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday. "It’s about saving the lives of our neighbors and co-workers and family members. And this short-term pain will lead to a longer-term gain for us, and I think shorten the duration of the impact from a public health and economic perspective for the community and the state.”

As part of the order, anyone currently living within the capital city must stay at home except for essential travel, starting at midnight on Friday.

In defining what the city considers essential, the order refers to the governor’s request, which listed caring for family members, friends and pets; seeking emergency services; obtaining medications, medical services and food; and donating blood.

Mendenhall said in a news release that people who are already practicing appropriate precautions, including social distancing, will not experience a big impact to their day-to-day lives. People can still exercise, go to parks, hike on trails and go to grocery stores, she noted.

As for businesses, the mayor said she doesn’t anticipate the order will force any more to close. “But I do hope that more businesses will operate only with essential personnel,” she said.

Salt Lake City’s order incorporates all the directives in the governor’s plan but adds a few city-specific items, including new measures at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Effective immediately, no one will be allowed inside the airport without an airline ticket or airport badge. All passenger drop-offs and pickups must be done curbside or in the parking garage, with all individuals other than travelers remaining in the vehicle.

Under city code, a violation of any emergency order carries a class B misdemeanor charge, meaning the standards are not stricter than they would be in a different situation, the mayor noted.

In a statement late Friday, Salt Lake City police said they won’t arrest anyone for going to work on Monday and that they “strongly encourage voluntary compliance” with the governor’s guidelines.

“We are relying on businesses to take responsibility for their employees and the general public,” the statement read. “Every effort should be made to telework."

If teleworking isn’t possible, that person shouldn’t be working — unless they are essential, according to the statement.

The city order is in place until April 11, at which point the City Council could extend it. Herbert’s less-strict “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive will be in effect statewide until April 13. And he said it will work only if everyone shelters in place, adding that home is the safest place for everyone right now. The directive starts Monday for businesses.

“There’s an expectation that all of us will follow these directives, and we need to do that," he said. “... All of us need to work together if we’re going to get through and survive, and in fact, not only survive but then be able to thrive in a few weeks.”

Many of his specific requests already have been communicated by state leaders in previous weeks. But the governor said his intent Friday was to put forth a message “of emphasis and reinforcement” of those best practices at a time when Utah’s total confirmed cases of COVID-19 have risen to 480 and a second Utahn has died of the virus. Those are the latest numbers released by the state Department of Health on Friday.

Asked why he chose not to issue an order similar to those announced by 23 other states as of Friday afternoon — including Colorado, Idaho and California — Herbert said he thought this was “a more positive route.”

“We think we have enough fear about this without adding to it,” he said, arguing that a “shelter-in-place” order sounded like a World War II effort.

Herbert emphasized that the state will continue to look at data about the spread of the virus and how various measures are affecting it. If those numbers look different in a week, he said, the state could consider stronger measures.

As part of his directive, Herbert is asking Utahns to not attend any gatherings with anyone outside their household. Children shouldn’t be attending school and they shouldn’t be having play dates or going to public playgrounds, he said.

Residents should not dine out, except for getting takeout food or delivery, he said. He encouraged Utahns to help businesses by ordering meals up to three times a week or by buying gift cards. Leisure driving is OK, he said, but cautioned people to “think in terms of what can you do at home first.”

Herbert said Utahns can still hike, walk their dogs and jog — but asked residents to keep their distance from others. And public amusement parks, public swimming pools and gyms and fitness centers are off-limits, he said.

While it’s OK to visit a park, Herbert cautioned that people have a tendency even in open areas to congregate. And he asked Utahns to go to state parks only in the counties where they live. The national parks policy is still under review by “the folks in Washington, D.C.,” Herbert said.

Officials will coordinate programs to help people experiencing homelessness find shelter and to limit their exposure to the virus, he said. His directive states that “individuals without a home may move between emergency shelters, drop-in centers and encampments" and that law-abiding encampments of fewer than 10 people should not be disbanded by state or local government, and the city’s order incorporates that exemption.

Herbert stressed that Utah is “not closed for business.” He said business is slower now and unemployment is up, but the state’s Workforce Services will try to connect those who need employment with jobs.

And state officials are working with lawmakers to find help for the business community, he said. At the same time, business owners and nonprofits need to do what they can to accommodate employees, he added.

“They need to know they’re coming to a safe environment," he said. “If they’re sick, the presumption is that they’re sick. This is not something they’re faking.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Friday that county leaders would likely issue their own guidance after stakeholders meet Saturday.

“I would expect when we finish tomorrow, we’ll have a lot of overlap between the [governor’s] suggested piece," she said, “but maybe take it a little bit further.”

One difference could be adding an enforcement mechanism, like criminal penalties, for those who violate the order, Wilson said.

She mentioned “egregious” violations of the current public health recommendations, such as the large groups showing up at Salt Lake City International Airport to greet returning Latter-day Saint missionaries or hosting parties at parks. Wilson said, “That has to stop.”

“We’re at the point," she added, “that we do need a heavier hand.”

However, Wilson said, putting into place a stay-at-home order for Salt Lake County residents wouldn’t be easy since so many in the county work elsewhere, such as Davis County.

“The challenge is, I think those arrangements can be made," Wilson said, “but time is of the essence, and this virus is not giving us a lot of time.”

She said she hopes county leaders can come together to take an evidence-based and data-driven approach to the orders they hand down, so leaders are making decisions based on a common framework.

Before Friday, Summit County was the only one to issue a stay-at-home order in the state. The restrictions there — which, like Salt Lake City, limit nonessential travel and instruct residents not to leave their home except for necessities, such as food or doctor appointments — began Friday at midnight and will be in place until May 1 throughout the county.

Before issuing her emergency proclamation, Mendenhall said in a video Thursday that she was working with state and county leaders toward a statewide mandate but noted she was prepared to act alone and to “act soon” if that move didn’t come.

“We know that we’re in a critical time," she said, “and that the decisions we make to isolate ourselves as individuals and to make that as a directive as the public is absolutely going to set the trajectory for how long the economic impact lasts and how far and deep this virus comes in contact with our public.”

Both Mendenhall and Wilson said Friday that they are supportive of the direction the governor has taken. Utah County officials also agreed with the governor, they said in a news release, and did not issue additional restrictions or add enforcement mechanisms.

Rep. Paul Ray, who sits on the state’s coronavirus task force, reiterated in an interview with The Tribune on Friday that the governor’s directive is not a mandate. The Clearfield Republican said he doesn’t believe such orders are advisable.

“Quite honestly, we lose a lot of people to the flu,” he said. “I guess we’ll see in the end.”

Ray said he believes Mendenhall wanted the governor to make the politically fraught decision to issue a shelter-at-home order, but argues it’s her decision to make.

“It’s a lot easier if you get him to make the call and you don’t have to answer to the public,” he said. “But we get elected to make the hard calls.”

Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.