As ‘closed’ signs come down, Utah sees its COVID-19 cases continue to go up

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hogle Zoo opened up again for visitors, with special rules for social distancing, Saturday May 2, 2020

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Utah reached a significant turning point this past week in its battle against the coronavirus.

Shifting from a “red” risk level to “orange,” the state began cranking up its economy again, allowing restaurants, bars, gyms and salons to reopen — albeit with strict social distancing and cleaning rules.

Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary welcomed back animal lovers young and old, while premier malls announced their plans to return, to varying degrees, this week: Salt Lake City’s Gateway on Monday, Murray’s Fashion Place on Tuesday and downtown’s City Creek Center on Wednesday.

National parks are coming back with limited offerings. Capitol Reef will open its gates Tuesday followed by Bryce Canyon on Wednesday. “Select areas” of Zion, the most popular of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, will become available May 13.

At the same time, Utah came off a week that logged its highest average daily increase of new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic hit the state. Since Sunday, April 26, the number of new daily cases has shot up by an average of nearly 154 a day. The previous week, April 19-26, saw about 146 a day.

On Sunday, the Utah Department of Health reported 194 new positive cases, the largest daily jump in more than a month and the second most since it posted 203 on April 2.

The new cases also pushed Utah past the 5,000 mark, bringing the total tally to 5,175.

On Sunday, the state noted another COVID-19 death, upping the count to 50. The latest was a hospitalized woman between ages 45 and 64 with a history of underlying health conditions, from Salt Lake County.

Despite these numbers, health officials remain confident with the state’s approach — provided Utahns follow health protocols as they emerge from their homes.

“We hope, as everyone gets out more, that practicing social distancing and wearing masks as outlined by the governor [Gary Herbert] and public health [officials], will keep our case rates in check,” Charla Haley, public information officer for the Utah Department of Health, wrote Sunday in an email.

Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp acknowledged that there could be an increase in the percentage of positive tests if Utahns don’t wear face masks and maintain social distancing.

"The only way this is going to work — to have business open,” he warned, “is if everybody does their part and wears their face coverings when they're in public and stays 6 feet away from people not in their household."

Utah had 14 deaths two weeks ago compared with nine this past week.

The most populous county, Salt Lake, still has the most: 31 deaths. Six other counties in the United States also have 31 deaths, including Bartow and Mitchell counties in Georgia, where the governor opened up parts of the Peach State on April 24. That day, Georgia reported more than 1,000 new cases.

But the number of new cases in Salt Lake County declined toward week’s end. It fell from 75 on Thursday to 61 Saturday, per the county’s most recent data. Salt Lake County reported eight new cases Sunday, but that number is likely to go up in the next few days.

Utah County, which never issued a stay-at-home order like Salt Lake and some other counties, continues to see increases. The number of COVID-19 cases rose from 777 to 1,073 in an eight-day span.

However, the nearly 300 additional cases in Utah’s second most populous county were fewer than the previous week’s 360.

Utah ended the week in the top half of testing among U.S. states. It stands at 17th with 122,102 people tested as of Sunday, behind Maryland (132,794) and ahead of Indiana (108,859), according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

“Because this is an unknown virus, we can’t predict how it’s going to act in the future,” Haley, of the Utah Health Department, said. “Our case count rates have stayed relatively consistent over the past several weeks, which is encouraging.”