Utah eases restrictions in some areas amid surge of COVID-19 cases

(Spenser Heaps | Deseret News, pool) State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

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As some parts of Utah move into looser safety guidelines for the coronavirus, and other areas seek the same easing of the rules — all while the state’s rate of COVID-19 cases is growing — Gov. Gary Herbert warned Utahns not to let down their guard against an invisible threat.

“It is easy to become lackadaisical and complacent,” Herbert said Thursday at the state’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing. “What we’re saying is: This is serious. Most people believe it’s serious. We’re also asking for something that’s hard to do, and that’s to change your habits.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said that in talking to officials from local health departments, “there is a more relaxed attitude towards physical distancing and face coverings and staying home when we’re ill. And right now, the risk of spread of COVID-19 is higher than it’s ever been in this epidemic. … These individual behaviors are essential for us to be able to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect those at highest risk.”

The Utah Department of Health (UDOH) reported Thursday that another 388 Utahns have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the previous day’s report — the 15th straight day the state has recorded 200 or more newly confirmed cases in a single day.

Dunn said the rate of positive test results has gone up in recent weeks. The rate of positive tests before Memorial Day was between 4% and 4.5%, she said. After Memorial Day, the rate has hovered around 7%, and it hit 10% last week.

“We are seeing these increases in cases across the state," she said, “from Logan to St. George.”

There is no evidence yet, Dunn said, that recent street protests — part of a global outcry brought on by the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police — have caused an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Utah.

Dunn noted that some areas of Utah — where “social distancing” is a natural outgrowth of being sparsely populated — are seeing little or no growth in COVID-19 cases.

Herbert announced that Kane County, in far southern Utah, will move Friday from the low-risk “yellow” safety category to the “green” — or the so-called “new normal” — category.

Two San Juan County communities, Bluff and Mexican Hat, will drop from the moderate-risk “orange” safety level to “yellow,” effective Friday, Herbert said. That leaves only one Utah jurisdiction — the state’s capital and largest city, Salt Lake City — in the “orange” category.

Herbert said the rest of the state will stay under the low-risk “yellow” safety guidelines for the coronavirus pandemic and won’t be moving to the “green” level soon.

“It’s a concern for us to see the rates rise,” Herbert said. “For us, it’s striking the right balance, threading that needle, where we give the public the right information so they can make their own decisions.”

Herbert said he’s waiting for the Bear River Health District to look over a request, voted on by the Cache County Council to go from “yellow” to “green.” “I’m not going to presuppose until I see the data,” Herbert said.

The governor said he will call the Utah Legislature into session late next week to deal with the lower revenues caused by the pandemic. The Legislature will "make some modifications to the budget for 2020,” Herbert said, and anticipate shortfalls in the budget for fiscal 2021.

Three more Utahns died from COVID-19, UDOH reported Thursday, raising the state’s overall death toll to 131.

The three people who died are a Salt Lake County woman, over 85, who was in a long-term care facility; a Salt Lake County man, between 60 and 85, who died in hospital; and a Utah County man, between 18 and 60, who also died in a hospital.

The new cases bring the state’s total to 13,252 confirmed cases overall. Fourteen more people were reported hospitalized with COVID-19 since the previous day’s report, UDOH said. There are now 119 positive COVID-19 cases in hospitals. Since the pandemic began, 968 people have been hospitalized in Utah.

Another 4,908 Utahns were tested for COVID-19 since the previous day’s report — taking the total number of people tested over the quarter-million mark, to 254,668 people.

Herbert said he’s not interested in ordering people to wear masks, and told residents who consider wearing masks an infringement on personal liberties that “we’re trying to give you guidance, and what is good counsel."

The governor is counting on people to self-regulate in the interests of themselves and those around them.

“People vote with their feet. If they don’t feel safe at your restaurant, they’re not going to show up and eat,” Herbert said. Restaurants, he said, using them as an example, will implement safety precautions, such as face masks and hand sanitizer, so they are “creating confidence for people in the marketplace.”

Herbert said the state’s guidelines are meant to protect both the health of Utahns and their economic livelihoods. “It is, and we’ve said it many many times, a balancing act,” Herbert said.

Next week’s special session of the Legislature will show how prepared Utah has been for crisis, he said.

“We will be able to weather this storm,” Herbert said, adding that Utah has been economically prudent in good times — and is one of nine U.S. states with a triple-A bond rating on Wall Street. “We don’t spend more than we take in,” Herbert said, contrasting Utah’s budget with the federal government’s. “We also save for a rainy day.”

“My hope is we will be able to keep education held harmless,” Herbert said, and won’t need to cut the budget for schools.

Several companies have looked into expanding in Utah, even during the pandemic, Herbert said. “They know this is the best place in America for business and job opportunities."