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Utah will on Friday begin relaxing some restrictions put in place in March to contain the spread of the coronavirus — allowing in-restaurant dining, the reopening of businesses such as gyms and salons, and gatherings of up to 20 people, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Tuesday.
The testing capacity, medical supplies and other resources Utah has built up in the past six weeks have been “pretty remarkable,” Herbert said, while the willingness of residents to stay home has helped bend the curve of infections.
This has allowed the state to move from the red “high risk” level, described in his Utah Leads Together 2.0 Plan, to an orange, or moderate, risk level, he said. Red indicates there is a high risk of COVID-19 for everyone; orange means there’s a moderate risk for everyone, and a high risk for those in vulnerable groups.
“These are uncertain, challenging times, but Utahns have stepped up," Herbert said. “This is a good news day for us today, as we transition from red to orange. And it only happens because of the spirit of collaboration and cooperation, which we have uniquely so in the state of Utah, the public-private partnerships, everybody working together.”
Herbert’s announcement came as the Utah Department of Health announced that four more Salt Lake County residents with underlying medical conditions had died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 45. The state added 110 new cases, bringing its overall tally to 4,343, with 21 more people hospitalized.
Moving from “red’ to “orange” won’t change some aspects of life in Utah. For example, Herbert said, schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
Utahns should continue working from home where possible and avoid travel, Herbert said, “though we’re not restricting travel as we’ve done before.” He did say people should avoid traveling out of state, and self-quarantine for 14 days if they have visited places that have been viral hotspots.
As for everyday behavior, Herbert said, "social distancing is going to be a way of life.”
The governor called it his “pet peeve” that more people don’t wear masks in public. “I’m a little disappointed when I go into the grocery store to do shopping for [my wife] Jeanette,” Herbert said. “We have a mask on when we go in. The employees have masks on. But too many of the customers don’t have masks.”
Herbert invoked one of his Western movie heroes: “Like Tonto said to the Lone Ranger, ‘Never take off the mask.’ ”
To that end, Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox announced a campaign, “A Mask for Every Utahn,” that has enlisted 20 Utah manufacturers to make 2 million reusable masks available free for people across the state. The program was funded as part of the federal stimulus bill, the CARES Act.
People can order a mask online, at coronavirus.utah.gov/mask. Cox said any household can place one order, with a maximum of six masks per order. Residents who already have a mask should let others order theirs first, Cox said. Once the supply of 2 million is exhausted, Cox said, there won’t be any more.
Cotopaxi, the Park City-based outdoor-gear manufacturer, is making 500,000 masks, CEO and founder Davis Smith said. The Utah Manufacturers Association has partnered with Utah companies to make the rest, said Todd Bingham, president and CEO of the group.
While personal behavior should stay constant, Herbert said, other parts of life will start to change gradually, including:
• Shopping will “open up,” Herbert said, but people are advised to get in and out, shop infrequently and combine trips.
• Dine-in restaurant services may be available, where the restaurants follow rules — including reconfiguring tables and chairs, screening employees at the start of their shifts, and screening customers. Restaurateurs, Herbert said, must be ready to tell diners who have COVID-19 symptoms that “you can get some curbside service, but you can’t dine inside.”
• The maximum number of people allowed in a “mass gathering” will go up from 10 to 20 — which won’t allow for rock concerts or Jazz games, but will permit some extended-family events. People who gather in such groups should maintain hygiene, like hand-washing, hand sanitizer and masks.
• Personal care facilities — such as gyms and salons — can reopen, if they follow strict protocols to ensure safety.
• Utah’s state parks are opening up, though Herbert warned that playgrounds are still off limits. “Use common sense and don’t let your children play on the playground equipment,” he said.
• Herbert hopes national parks will open soon. Herbert said he’s talking with managers of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and he hopes Lake Powell will open as soon as Friday, “though that’s yet to be determined,” Herbert said.
“This is not going back to business as usual. We are not at that point yet,” Herbert said. But it opens up some more “economic opportunity,” he said.
Local government and health officials can work with the state health department to be able to vary from the state directive, Herbert said, and remain at red or move to yellow, depending on their circumstances..
If Utahns continue to work together, he added, "good news is going to continue to happen, and pretty soon we’re going to be back into full-blown recovery.”
Utah is seeing a flattening of its curve, and “a slow reopening is a good idea,” agreed state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn. But people should still follow social distancing guidelines, wear masks and stay home, she echoed Herbert.
Before announcing the changes, the governor noted Utah now has the ability to test 6,000 people per day and for labs to process 9,000 tests per day. Utah has set up 62 different testing sites throughout the state and has done about 102,000 tests for COVID-19. There are also three mobile test collection sites, with one deployed at the Navajo Nation.
"We’ve talked about testing ad nauseam,“ he said, but added, “we’re not reaching that” capacity.
Only about 70% of intensive care unit beds are being used in Utah right now, Herbert noted; a total of 370 Utahns have been hospitalized for COVID-19.