What the state’s new COVID-19 strategy means for Utahns

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Daniel Salas working at a COVID-19 testing station at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Utah’s leaders on Tuesday rolled out a new strategy for curbing the spread of COVID-19 across the state, announcing that county-level restrictions going forward will be tied to local data on how the virus is being transmitted.

The system is replacing the color-coded guidelines that state officials have previously used as they’ve imposed economic restrictions across Utah. Under this new framework, most of the state will fall under a mask mandate as a “jump start” for at least the next two weeks, while a swath of detailed industry guidelines will disappear.

And state officials made clear that their plan won’t work unless individuals and business owners take personal responsibility for stopping the spread of the disease.

“Our announcement of this new system without your involvement is practically nothing,” Richard Saunders, interim director of the Utah Department of Health, said during a news conference.

How are officials categorizing counties?

The new system will separate counties into “high,” “moderate” or “low” transmission areas, each attached to a set of restrictions. As state health officials sort counties, they’ll be looking at three data points: Average test positivity rates, new case rates and statewide hospitalizations.

Counties will fall into a certain category after meeting at least two of the three criteria for that classification, and the state’s health department will revisit the designations on a weekly basis. However, a county can only move from a higher to a lower level after spending at least 14 days in the more restrictive category, officials said Tuesday.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Salt Lake, Utah, Wasatch, Juab, Cache and Garfield counties are currently designated as high transmission areas. Fifteen more — Box Elder, Carbon, Davis, Grand, Iron, Millard, Morgan, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Tooele, Uintah, Washington and Weber — are in the moderate transmission category.

Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Kane, Piute, Rich and Wayne are considered low transmission areas.

When are masks required?

There will be a general, statewide mask requirement for live events, movie theater showings, sports games, weddings and other recreation and entertainment events.

Otherwise, mask mandates will vary county by county.

Residents in high transmission areas will have to wear face coverings in stores and other public indoor settings and outside when physical distancing isn’t possible.

Those rules will also apply to moderate transmission counties until Oct. 29 — the end of a two-week “circuit breaker” designed to control the current surge in case counts. After that, masks will be “strongly recommended” but not required for the moderate level, according to the state’s COVID-19 website.

The state will not impose a mask mandate in low transmission areas. However, county leaders can choose to issue a face covering requirement, and the state’s new guidelines do not alter the existing mask mandates in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties or in public schools and state-run businesses.

What are the rules for bars and restaurants?

In counties with the worst infection levels, bars and restaurants will have to make sure patrons stay 6 feet apart at all times.

This 6-foot requirement applies to restaurant waiting areas but not to the dining room in moderate-transmission counties, while bars are limited to 75% capacity and must ask guests to wear masks while mingling with people outside of their group. Distancing in bars and eateries is not mandated in the least restrictive areas.

The new rules also will roll back a number of earlier COVID-19 directives for the food and drink industry. Until now, the state has ordered restaurants to suspend dine-in service in counties with the most severe outbreaks. Those forced closures are not part of the new system.

Even in areas with fewer restrictions, many dine-in restaurants were subject to a host of rules that governed how many people could sit together, how eateries distributed napkins and straws and when servers were allowed to put silverware on the tables.

The new system also does away with those guidelines, and officials say they are relying on businesses to take responsibility for keeping their customers safe.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

What about other businesses?

With the exception of bars, restaurants and public gathering venues, the plan rolled out Tuesday does away with most of the industry guidelines that previously applied, according to a state fact sheet.

The old color-coded framework offered detailed instructions to a wide range of businesses, including barbers, tattoo artists, massage therapists, gyms, hotels and retail establishments. Those rules are largely gone under the new system, according to a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health.

Instead, the state is issuing a few high-level guidelines to all businesses, instructing them to require 6 feet between household groups unless masks are worn; erect Plexiglas barriers between staff and customers where possible; clean restrooms at least twice daily; make sure the ventilation system is working; ask staff and customers with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home; and offer curbside pickup or delivery when possible.

What are the rules for gatherings?

The new system splits gatherings into two categories — public and private.

Private social gatherings will have size limitations. Groups of more than 10 are prohibited in high transmission counties and in moderate transmission areas until Oct. 29. After that date, social gatherings of up to 25 are allowed in the moderate category, and groups can be even larger if attendees are wearing masks.

In low transmission counties, mask-free private gatherings of up to 50 people are permitted. The groups can be larger if individuals are using face coverings.

On the other hand, size restrictions don’t extend to public gatherings such as sports games, concerts, movie showings or other recreational and entertainment events. The rules for those gatherings focus more on masks and social distancing.

Face coverings are broadly required for these events, and 6 feet of separation between household groups is mandated for the high and moderate transmission counties. Event operators can petition local officials for an exception to this distancing requirement, but the state is generally discouraging county leaders from granting this relief.

The state is encouraging but not mandating social distancing at events in low transmission counties.

What about schools and religious meetings?

Schools can continue holding in-person classes regardless of how rapidly COVID-19 is spreading through the community, according to the new rules.

That came as a disappointment to leaders in the Utah Education Association, who hoped state officials would address the number of public school outbreaks that have happened since fall classes resumed. Brad Bartels, the association’s executive director, said in-person instruction is ideal, but remote learning is necessary in some cases to protect teachers and students.

“We continue to be concerned for the safety of our members,” he said.

On the other hand, the state is arguing that local education leaders should be in control of whether schools remain open.

“Schools play an essential role in the infrastructure and well-being of our state and our communities,” the state’s fact sheet says. “Local school boards and school districts should work with their local health officer to determine when to move to a remote or hybrid learning model, depending on case counts and outbreak thresholds at the school or school district level.”

Religious services also are permitted at all transmission levels and aren’t subject to any size limitations. That’s because the state is thinking of them as public rather than social gatherings, according to Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for Utah Department of Health. He said the public gathering guidelines for masks and social distancing will apply to faith services.