Utah’s governor won’t ease coronavirus restrictions for two weeks, and may let Salt Lake County require face masks

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People wearing masks on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Mask wearing is recommended during the current orange phase of Utah's COVID-19 effort in Salt Lake City.

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Utah’s color-coded safety designations for COVID-19 guidelines won’t be changing for the next two weeks, Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday, in response to a recent sharp rise in cases of the disease.

Herbert ordered a two-week moratorium on requests to alter the current settings — which now have Salt Lake City in at moderate-risk “orange,” 10 rural counties in the “new normal” or “green” level, and the rest of the state at low-risk “yellow.”

The announcement came as state health officials announced that another 484 Utahns had tested positive for COVID-19 in a day. The daily rate of positive test results was 19.6%, and the average rate for the last seven days was 13.2%.

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In the state’s weekly briefing to the media, Herbert held firm that his goal is “to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people we represent in the state of Utah.”

The state of Utah “didn’t shut down the economy completely” at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Herbert said, and despite the continuing surge of cases, “we’re not going to shut it down now.”

Herbert went further than before in encouraging Utahns to follow social distancing guidelines — and, in particular, to wear face masks to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor announced he would issue an executive order, requiring people in state office buildings — including liquor stores — to wear masks at all times. Before declaring the order, Herbert said that a member of his senior staff has tested positive for COVID-19.

Herbert also seemed to soften his stance toward a request from Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who is asking him to grant the county permission to make public mask-wearing mandatory. Herbert said he would meet Thursday with health officials — including Jeff Burton, acting director of the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), and Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist — and look at data compiled by Dr. Gary Edwards, director of the county’s health department, before deciding whether to approve Wilson’s request.

“I’m a local control person,” Herbert said. “We are not a one-size-fits-all state.”

Utah’s faith leaders also gave their support to wearing masks. Herbert read a statement, signed by 28 clerical leaders — including Baptist, Buddhist, Episcopalian, evangelical, Jewish, Latter-day Saint, Lutheran, Muslim, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Unitarian — to ask “people of faith all over the state to wear masks and practice physical distancing, sacrificing a small measure of comfort for the sake of saving lives.”

The statement cited scripture — specifically, Jesus’ command “to love one’s neighbor as oneself” — and added, “one cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while deliberately putting them at risk.”

No new fatalities from COVID-19 were reported in Utah on Wednesday; the state’s death toll stands at 163 people.

Herbert’s handling of the pandemic, and his insistence that he won’t close the state’s economy, has come under fire following a memo Dunn sent to the state’s COVID-19 task force last week. In the memo, Dunn warned that if daily case rates didn’t drop below 200 a day by July 1, it may be necessary to tighten the state’s COVID-19 restrictions again.

Dunn, in her first news conference since the memo became public Monday, said it was “intended for a starting point for discussion, and written from one perspective, the public health perspective.”

Dunn appeared via Zoom from UDOH offices, rather than — as has been the practice for their weekly briefings — from the Utah Capitol, where Herbert spoke. She appeared to be trying to tamp down any friction her memo may have caused.

“I’m really proud to work in a state where I feel encouraged to provide my input and my advice, and that leadership will consider it, and weigh it alongside the input from other experts in their field,” Dunn said.

The data Salt Lake County sent to the state with its masking request noted that the state’s most populous county had recorded 100 or more confirmed COVID-19 cases a day since June 2, and several days had more than 200 cases a day. The county also had a 4% increase in hospitalizations between May 29 and June 22, this past Monday.

“Mandatory wearing of face masks in public would significantly reduce the risk of community spread,” Edwards, the Salt Lake County Health Department’s director, said in a letter to Burton, UDOH’s acting head. Edwards also said the move could “preemptively reduce future stress on the medical system.”

Wilson released Edwards’ letter to Burton on Wednesday. Thanks to a law passed last month by the Utah Legislature and signed by Herbert, no county can implement a COVID-19 policy stricter than the state’s health order without the governor’s approval.

Herbert acknowledged the confusion about mask-wearing during the early days of the pandemic.

“We’ve had conflicting science, we’ve had conflicting opinions,” Herbert said. “But the consensus now is that masks not only protect the wearer, but protect the people around them.”

Herbert said the rules are simple: “Wear a mask at all times in any indoor settings and gatherings. And wear a mask outdoors when social distancing is not possible. … Hey, when in doubt, wear it.”

He added: “I see it as a sign of respect for the health and welfare of the people around you.”

Herbert defended the state’s early and continuing response to the pandemic: “Despite of criticism on all sides of this issue, we’re doing pretty well,” he said.

The role of the state’s COVID-19 task force has been “misrepresented,” Herbert said. Herbert said he followed the lead of President Donald Trump, who installed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the White House’s effort against the virus, and picked Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to lead the state task force.

“We’ve had some accusation that the group has been sidelined, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Herbert said. He said the state’s recovery plan, “Utah Leads Together,” came out of the task force’s efforts.

Herbert said the state had been successful in battling the virus in the early going, and “we’ve become complacent because of the good news. We need to redouble our efforts, not be complacent, recognize the storm clouds on the horizon, and weather the storm.”

The decision Wednesday by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to quarantine people visiting from nine states with high infection rates — including Utah — is “just an indication of concern, and we share that concern,” Herbert said.

The state will host its first COVID-19 news conference in Spanish, Herbert said. He called it an effort to improve communication about the disease to the state’s multicultural community. Utah’s Latinx community has been disproportionately struck by the COVID-19 spread.

The senior staff member in Herbert’s office who was diagnosed with COVID-19 went into self-isolation after being tested, the governor said. Those who were around the man are being tested, and going into self-isolation until the results come back. Herbert said neither he nor Cox had been in direct contact with the staffer.

The new cases reported Wednesday bring the total number of people in Utah who have contracted COVID-19 to 18,784. With the additional 2,462 tests reported Wednesday, 304,738 tests have been processed in the state since reporting began in March, UDOH said. Utah hospitals have admitted 1,256 people for COVID-19 since then.

The state reports that 10,334 people are considered “recovered” — which, by the UDOH definition, means they have gone three weeks since their diagnosis and are still alive.

One bit of positive news, Dunn said, is that only 13% of the state’s COVID-19 cases were caused by “community spread” — meaning, essentially, that the state’s contact tracers have been unable to determine where or how the person caught the virus.

“Our contact tracers are really doing an excellent job of really identifying all those close contacts to cases, reaching out to them, and enforcing quarantine and isolation,” Dunn said.