Gov. Gary Herbert hopes to loosen Utah’s coronavirus restrictions a bit by next week

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News/pool) Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert removes his mask before speaking during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 24, 2020.

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Gov. Gary Herbert is seeing orange in Utah’s future, setting a goal of lowering the state’s COVID-19 risk level from “high risk” red to “moderate risk” orange by the end of next week.

Herbert declared Friday that he wants the state to loosen some restrictions on public gatherings set in motion to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Those changes include a gradual restoration of in-house dining in restaurants, and the reopening of gyms and parks, tentatively on May 1.

“We’re not going back to business as usual,” Herbert said at the state’s daily media briefing. “We may not see a lot of change in our own personal behavior, but we’ll see opportunities for businesses to open up and to interact more than we’ve done in the past.”

However, Herbert said, as he has been reviewing the recommendations of the state’s newly formed Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, he still has some concerns that need to be addressed.

One issue is that any changes must be done without endangering populations vulnerable to COVID-19 — particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues, such as obesity and diabetes.

The other is to gauge what changes will look like across the state, keeping in mind that some regions have been affected by the coronavirus differently than others.

Where possible, Herbert said, the state would defer to local health officials’ judgment about reopening businesses. “I think they know their areas better than anybody,” he said.

Salt Lake County officials said they’re looking at four metrics to judge their success fighting the virus and how to reopen businesses: testing capacity, whether hospitals are stable, how effectively they can contact trace and COVID-19 case stabilization.

County officials hope that using these data points, they can avoid a yo-yo effect, where people return to some kind of normalcy and then are asked to go back into self-isolation because of another outbreak.

The first three metrics are easy enough to determine, and officials are happy with the numbers. Anyone who needs to be tested in the county can be, county Mayor Jenny Wilson said. Hospitals are way under-capacity. Officials have been able to find the source of transmission in about 85% of positive cases.

Gary Edwards, county health department executive director, said nailing down stabilization rates is trickier since testing rates themselves aren’t static.

That means officials have to look at how many people are diagnosed per test administered, how many people a sick person infects on average, and how many days it takes for cases to double.

The positivity rate has stayed stable around 5%, and the transmission rate has dropped from 6 people infected for everyone one person infected in early March to only 1.3 people infected per diagnosis now. It takes about 14 days for the number of cases to double, an improvement from 4.6 in late March.

Edwards said officials are comfortable with those numbers, too. He said he and others are aware that a May 1 deadline “looms” for some kind of order or guidance to replace the county’s public health order when it lapses. He said county officials will be going over the data so they make choices that won’t hinder progress.

“When we open up, we know we’re in this for quite some time,” Wilson said, comparing the fight against coronavirus to a marathon.

Right now, she said, we’re at mile 10 or 12. The road is starting to flatten but the course so far has all been uphill.

“To be able to stay flat, and even to find a downhill slope toward mile 26, we need to remind people they need to continue to social distance and they need to wear face coverings,” Wilson said.

Herbert’s announcement came after news that four more Utahns had died from COVID-19 as of Friday, bringing the state’s death toll to 39. Three of the four new fatalities were from Salt Lake County; the fourth was from Utah County.

Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said three of the most recent fatalities had been living in long-term care facilities that had been the sites of known outbreaks. The fourth had been hospitalized before dying, and had underlying health issues.

The Utah Department of Health reported Friday that it has confirmed a total 3,782 cases of COVID-19 statewide — 170 more than were reported Thursday. The state has seen 315 people admitted to a hospital for COVID-19, the state’s Friday figures showed, which is 14 more than the day before. UDOH reported 84,697 Utahns have been tested for the coronavirus so far.

Herbert stressed that any decision to move the color-coded risk indicator from red to orange “will be made with data-informed judgment. It’s not because of politics, it’s not because of fear mongering. It’s because of good data.”

The data, Herbert said, was giving him cause for optimism. The governor said he feels comfortable with loosening restrictions as hospitalization rates have started to decline and local hospitals have the capacity to treat those who are ill.