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Most of Utah will shift from a moderate “orange” risk level to a lower “yellow” status starting this weekend, after the governor declared that there’s now a small enough risk of the coronavirus spreading here to relax many restrictions.

People can gather in groups of up to 50. All businesses can open across the state. And team sports can resume as long as participants are checked for symptoms first.

“After a careful review of the data, we’ve determined the trend is good,” Gov. Gary Herbert said during a video news conference announcing the decision Thursday. “I like our numbers. We’ve plateaued.”

The change will begin early Saturday for most — though two cities and three counties are exempt and will remain in the “orange” status for now. Those are Salt Lake City and West Valley City, as well as Summit, Wasatch and Grand counties.

Those areas have been hit harder by the virus, Herbert added, and are still seeing high daily caseloads, transmission rates, hospitalizations and deaths. Residents there will continue to be asked to stay at home as much as possible, at least for now, and limit groups to 20 or less.

But the governor said he hopes “in a very short period of time” that they’ll also be able to shift to the lower risk level along with the rest of the state.

“I know they’re desirous to get to yellow,” he said, pointing to his silky yellow tie from behind the podium.

Not all towns and counties are on board with reopening, though. Chief among them is Salt Lake County, whose mayor spoke out against the move. And while there were no new deaths reported Thursday, the announcement came after five previous consecutive days with COVID-19 fatalities here, with the total now at 75.

Some say it’s too soon and point out that the state only shifted from high risk “red” to moderate “orange” in the color-coded safety levels about two weeks ago, on May 1. Some shops didn’t open until a few days later — meaning there hasn’t been quite enough time to match the incubation period of the virus.

Additionally, 129 more residents tested positive. There have now been 6,749 cases in Utah, according to the state Department of Health.

Salt Lake County accounts for more than half of those, with 3,604.

Mayor Jenny Wilson requested that the entire county remain in the “orange” category for another 10 days to ensure it was safe, but she said Thursday that was denied by the governor’s office.

Instead, within the county, only Salt Lake City and West Valley City were allowed to keep their more stringent restrictions. She’s encouraged because those are the two largest cities in the state and have had the most spread.

“But we also understand that the virus doesn’t recognize municipal boundaries and therefore, countywide caution and prudence will still be essential for success,” she said in a statement.

Additionally, the town of Alta within the county also requested to stay in “orange.” That, too, was rejected, though the municipality will be able to put some lighter restrictions in place for its unique situation.

Jefferson Burton, who is leading day-to-day operations of the Utah Department of Health during the coronavirus pandemic, had mentioned during the governor’s news conference Thursday that one smaller area had asked not to move to “yellow.” He didn’t specifically mention the location, but Alta Mayor Harris Sondak believes Burton was referring to his town.

“I’m worried,” Sondak said later Thursday. “Many people from many places comes to Alta. I could end up with dozens of people coming from all over the world and all over the country.”

Fewer than 400 residents live in the ski town at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon — but even without snow, the number of people explodes during summer festivals and the upcoming hiking season. The mayor fears the virus will spread quickly then with everything opening up.

Already, he’s had to close parking lots at trailheads even under the “orange” status because people keep driving there and having tailgate parties.

Sondak has gotten the OK from the state to put in place some extra safeguards for the hotels and condos to stay sanitized and to require all residents and visitors wear masks when outside. “We’re not trying to quash business for our property managers," the mayor added. "We just don’t want to become a place where a lot of transmission happens.”

But Alta will still have to move to “yellow.”

Burton, who is also co-chairman of the state’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission on reopening the state, said because there have been no positive cases of the virus there the “orange” restrictions “were not warranted.” Any areas wanting to stay in that stricter level must have authorization from the state and must be able to show the need with data.

Herbert insisted: “This is a collaborative effort between state and local officials.”

How was the decision made?

Herbert doesn’t anticipate a surge in cases with the loosened restrictions, but said if there is one, the state is prepared.

Utah is at about 10% of hospital capacity, he noted, with coronavirus patients. According to the latest health department numbers, 99 people statewide are currently hospitalized with the virus. That means, essentially, another 900 people would have to be in an intensive care unit before the state would be at its maximum beds.

That calculation was a big driver in the decision to downgrade to “yellow,” the governor said. The point of putting the restrictions in place in the beginning was to make sure that the health care systems in the state weren’t overwhelmed. And because that hasn’t happened, he said, he feels comfortable slowly opening back up.

The data, Herbert added, is being looked at “in a very diligent way,” including deaths and hotspots.

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert wears a yellow tie as he announces most of the state will be moving from the "orange" phase to the "yellow" phase of reopening Utah amid the pandemic during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 14, 2020.

Each week, the state will continue to assess on an individual basis those areas remaining at the “orange” level.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she would like to see a consistent decline in cases for 14 days before making any changes. The zip codes of 84116 and 84104 on the west side of the city, in particular, have been ravaged by the virus and are lower-income areas.

“The current data does not indicate Salt Lake City should yet be loosening our approach,” she said in a statement.

West Valley City spokesman Sam Johnson said staying “orange” for now was also the right decision for the second largest city in the state, with more than 136,000 residents. “There are challenges with that in terms of density,” he noted.

Both Summit and Wasatch Counties in the northern part of the state will be exempt from moving to “yellow” this week, too, but not because of high populations. Instead, they have high rates of the virus per capita.

Summit, in particular, was inundated with coronavirus cases at the start of the outbreak, which coincided with the end of the ski season in Park City. As of Thursday, Summit had 393 cases and Wasatch 188. Both outpace the infections per residents of even Salt Lake County.

“Our strategy for remaining at the moderate risk level is to fully understand the results of lifting the stay-at-home order and gather information that will guide our response as we move into the summer months,” said Dr. Phil Bondurant, Summit County deputy health director.

Grand County is the other area remaining “orange.” It will do so for at least a week as Arches National Park reopens after Memorial Day. That will be the test to see if it needs to stay more restricted or can loosen the reins.

The area is remote and the county, as a whole, has just 17 hospital beds for 10,000 residents. With the surge during summer months, the number of people who visit the popular tourist town of Moab over the course of a year reaches 4 million.

"These are numbers that require conservative measures to avoid both medical and public safety collapse and unnecessary deaths,” said Christina Sloan, the attorney for Grand County.

“I just think we’re more at risk than the average county,” added Mary McGann, chairwoman of the Grand County Council.

The county sits in the Southeast Utah health district, which has seen just 13 cases.

Neighboring San Juan County, meanwhile, has 154 cases. But it will reopen, Burton said, because most of those are on the Navajo Nation, which is a sovereign entity, and the county outside of that has had only four cases.

The town of Bluff there had originally wanted to remain “red” due to worry about the spread. The mayor said Thursday that she doesn’t know what they’ll do now that the state wants it to be “yellow.”

What does ‘yellow’ mean?

Under the low-risk status, most areas of Utah will be back open, including all businesses; previously those were restricted by type of service under “orange.”

Swimming pools will specifically be allowed to welcome guests with proper spacing. Restaurants can continue to offer dine-in service and can now open buffets. In-state travel is open and unrestricted. And the moratorium on evictions will be lifted.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Summer sports are allowed for clubs, but not school teams, Herbert clarified later in the day. And students can sign up for driver’s education classes to take place in person.

Schools, however, will stay closed through the end of the academic year. And a decision on whether to open classrooms up for the fall is still pending.

With all of the changes, the governor is asking that individuals still maintain social distancing of 6 feet from others and that everyone wear masks — though they’re advised, not required — as the economy restarts.

“We hope people use caution and commonsense and will be careful in their actions,” Herbert said.

He said, too, that anyone who is older, immunocompromised or considered at high risk of contracting the virus should still take strict precautions — even under “yellow” restrictions. Dr. Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Healthcare, said during the news conference that 70% of the people in Utah who have died from the coronavirus were over age 65. And 90% were either over 65 or had underlying medical conditions, he said.

So those groups are still a concern. “But if they stay in their home and we keep them away from kids, no matter how old or how many conditions they have, they, too, can stay well,” Good said.

Overall, he noted, the numbers look good. Roughly 99% of those who contracted the virus in the state have or will recover.

The governor added that economic growth is not being put ahead of the health of residents and that if there needs to be a move backward on the scale back to “orange” or even “red,” that will happen.

Some areas, particularly in rural Utah, “had a leg up,” he added, and were ready to move to “yellow” because they had no cases or little transmission.

Washington, Iron and Kane counties had all requested to shift to lower restrictions late last month, but those were initially denied as being too early. Nephi City and the Bear River Health Department, which oversees Cache, Rich and Box Elder counties in northern Utah, also wanted to transition to “yellow” sooner.

With the low risks in those areas, the governor said it’s possible some parts of the state could see a full recovery by the end of the year.

— Tribune reporters Sean Means and Norma Gonzalez contributed to this report.