Utah workers prepare as state shifts down coronavirus risk level

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) People watch as a U.S. Air Force F-35 Demonstration Team flies over the Salt Lake Valley in Cottonwood Heights, Thursday, April 30, 2020.

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Restaurants, salons, zip line companies and a variety of other Utah businesses readied to open Friday even as some workers wondered how they were supposed to stay healthy on the job.

The restrictions in place for as long as six weeks to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus change Friday across the state. Businesses that had been closed can open — often at a fraction of the capacity they had before the pandemic and then with the staff wearing masks and frequently sanitizing surfaces.

Utahns are also allowed to gather in groups of up to 20 as the state moves from pandemic’s red phase — considered high risk — to orange, considered moderate.

For her part, though, Karen Morais won’t be joining any get-togethers.

The 64-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident says she plans to continue to self-isolate as much as possible and hopes others do, too.

“If they made it green, I wouldn’t change my behavior," Morais said Thursday, "because I don’t think we know enough about this virus to understand what’s going to happen.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather on the rooftop of Intermountain Medical Center in Murray in anticipation of a flyover by the Air Force F-35A Lightning II Demonstration and 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill Air Force Base, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. The demonstration over Utah was a "salute to everyone on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, as well as those staying at home to flatten the curve of the virus," according to a news release.

She contends that even an event meant to lift Utah’s spirits created a danger Thursday. Four F-35s from Hill Air Force Base flew low across the state to honor health care workers.

Morais said she was picking up her mail at her post office box in Murray as the jets were about to pass and she saw crowds gathering outside with people standing too close to one another without wearing masks.

“I have seen life seeming to go on pretty much as normal,” she said, "and I don’t think we can afford to give people the message that it’s OK to increase their time out amongst each other. That flyover today was the perfect example.”

For Terry Burden, on the other hand, the lessened restrictions don’t go far enough. The television producer and host, who works in Park City, says the economic toll of mitigation has been too high. He would like restaurants to be able to operate at full capacity and for music venues to have shows again.

“We killed the economy," the 54-year-old Burden said Thursday. "COVID wasn’t going to kill a lot of people. I know that I risk sounding insensitive, but by the same token, it’s a matter of scale.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cherries, from the Cherry Hill water park can barely be seen under a giant banner that reads, "One Nation Under God" in Farmington, April 29, 2020.

The state’s death toll increased to 46 Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Health. The latest victim was a 60-year-old man in Salt Lake County.

There were 177 new coronavirus cases, bringing Utah’s total to 4,672. It represented the largest one-day number jump in new cases since April 5.

The new data shows about 2,800 new tests were reported Thursday, boosting that total to 108,501. There were seven new hospitalizations, giving Utah 390 hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

Minutes after the fighter jets flew over Salt Lake City, Gov. Gary Herbert addressed reporters and expressed optimism. Sporting an orange necktie to denote the downgrade from the red risk level, he asked Utahns to keep avoiding large groups, especially if they are over age 65 and have health problems or live with such a person. But the governor added that the state should be happy at a lessening of restrictions.

“It symbolizes a number of things,” Herbert said of the changes. “One is that we’re making progress. We’re moving forward. There is reason for all of us to be optimistic, hopeful. ... Under moderate risk, we are still encouraged to do things that we have been doing."

Utah has succeeded in reducing the transmission rate — the number of people a person infects — down to about 1. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Utah was preparing “strike teams” to enter hot spots across the state.

The teams would include personnel who could help isolate patients, provide contact tracing — the locating of people who came into contact with an infected patient — and offer other logistical support. The teams will also have people who speak foreign languages if needed.

Dunn said it’s important that people with COVID-19 symptoms isolate themselves and that gatherings remain small.

“This is something everybody is going to have to figure out," she said, “the level of risk they are willing to take."

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 health care workers at Ogden Regional Medical Center test possible virus carriers in the hospital parking lot drive-thru tent, April 29, 2020.

Returning to work is a risk Jesus Hernandez doesn’t want. He’s a server and bartender at a Salt Lake City restaurant. It’s reopening Friday. The 30-year-old employee has been told by management he’s needed there.

Hernandez said the manager has told him customers have been calling to make reservations. Hernandez fears such diners may not have been careful about social distancing and could be sick and infect him.

“I’m not worried that my restaurant’s not going to follow protocol," he said. "I’m worried about the people coming in.”

Hernandez said the restaurant’s human resources personnel told him that if he didn’t show up for work, he would be reported as declining a job and lose his unemployment benefits. He also wouldn’t be allowed to reapply for a job at the restaurant when the pandemic ends.

He said unemployment has been paying him about what he made serving and bartending, where much of his money came from tips. If his restaurant is allowed to operate only at partial capacity, he won’t make as much as he is on unemployment.

“I felt coerced to make a decision to expose myself to receive some sort of funds," Hernandez said.

Silvia Castro, executive director of Suazo Business Center, which focuses on helping Latino businesses, said some firms won’t be able to open because they don’t have enough masks, gloves and sanitizers to comply with public health orders.

Data from the state health department has shown Latinos have had a disproportionately high rate of infection. Castro said many Latino businesses also suffered economically because they are in the service industry.

She expects Latino workers will be on the job — despite any risks — when their bosses need them.

“They will come back," she said, “because they want to provide for their families.”

Summit County once had one of the highest per-capita infection rates in the country. In recent weeks, it has lowered its infection rate below the statewide average.

Dr. Rich Bullough, director of the county’s health department, said Thursday that Summit’s number of recovered patients has exceeded new cases in recent days.

He wants to continue the trend.

Summit County is hiring 40 new inspectors to ensure businesses are complying with new health guidelines. He also asked customers to report violations and to take their business elsewhere if owners don’t follow the rules.

“This is about our community," Bullough said, "and we can’t afford as a community to slip back into the dynamic we had six weeks ago.”

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