Utah’s Summit County poised to begin easing COVID-19 restrictions, but some fear it’s too soon

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) People walk Main Street in Park City, Friday, March 27, 2020. After seeing a surge of coronavirus cases, Summit County issued an order for all residents to not leave their homes unless necessary. The county is now poised to ease those restrictions.

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Summit County leaders said Monday they plan to lift a stay-at-home order and join the wider effort to reopen Utah, perhaps as soon as May 1, but some residents worry that might be too soon to relax any rules.

“Because we are such a tourist destination," Park City resident Leslie Liberatore said, "I fear we’re gong to get this influx of people with cabin fever, and we’re going to go back to square one.”

Liberatore, who owns an agency that specializes in restaurant marketing, wants more coronavirus testing before easing restrictions.

For now, the county is still considered at high risk for contracting the coronavirus and residents are expected to remain at home unless they are at an essential job or doing another approved activity such as grocery shopping or exercising while practicing social distancing.

Although nothing is guaranteed to change May 1, County Council Chairman Doug Clyde said that is the date being considered to follow the plan announced last week by Gov. Gary Herbert to gradually reopen businesses and ease restrictions on travel and gatherings.

“As we enter into this stabilization phase," Clyde said Monday in a telephone interview, "we’re going to be learning new things every day.”

Some of the first businesses that could have their restrictions eased are restaurants. Clyde said the county might allow them to start selling to-go meals at their counters and gradually allow for dine-in service while maintaining social distancing.

County leaders will explore how regulations can be eased to help the businesses and maintain safety.

“How do we make it easier?" Clyde asked. "How do we make it more profitable so we’re saving local business?”

Utah’s capital, on the other hand, is not ready to begin loosening stay-at-home restrictions and other public health measures meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Monday.

Areas continue to see some of Utah’s highest virus transmission rates, the mayor said, so the city needs its own tailored and data-driven approach to the health crisis.

“Our most vulnerable communities are the most severely impacted,” Mendenhall said during a Monday teleconference with young Utah leaders.

She said the city would monitor several benchmarks for the outbreak as a basis for easing its March 27 emergency order, working with newly available data from Salt Lake County Health Department officials.

Summit County had 331 COVID-19 cases Monday, according to the Utah Department of Health. That’s about 10% of the state’s total from a county that represents about 1% of Utah’s population.

The infection rate made Summit County one of the hottest spots in the United States for the coronavirus. The County Council issued a stay-at-home order to its residents March 25 and called upon the state and other municipalities to do the same. Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele, Wasatch and Morgan counties issued similar orders, while Herbert opted for a directive encouraging residents statewide to stay home.

Meanwhile, Summit County has used more aggressive testing than found elsewhere in Utah to try to contain the spread. Mobile testing centers have been deployed across the county and residents living in and near certain apartment complexes were told to get tested even if they had no symptoms.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 testing at the Park City Ice Arena, Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Summit County news release said the speed of any changes will be based upon “ongoing epidemiological data collection."

Clyde said one goal for the county is to reduce the infection rate to one. That is every person infected only infects one other person.

The county has had an infection rate of three or four, Clyde said. If the rate returns to those levels, he said, the restrictions could be maintained or issued again.

Martin Drayton was not pleased to hear Summit County residents might increase their movements.

The 59-year-old Drayton lives in Park City with a wife who has a weakened immune system. Even though he lost his part-time job as a snowboard instructor and has taken a leave from working as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, Drayton wants to keep the current restrictions until there’s more testing available for COVID-19 or its antibodies.

“People here are too quick to try to get things back to normal," Drayton said Monday. "Obviously, we want to. We need to for businesses, of course. But there’s a big difference between trying to get your business going and being dead.”