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Robert Gehrke: The governor’s new coronavirus action took too long, now we have to hope it works

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Finally!

After nearly five weeks of watching the coronavirus exploding across the state, Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday imposed some long-overdue safeguards, including limiting the size of gatherings and imposing mask requirements across nearly the entire state for the next two weeks, then an ongoing mandate in counties where the spread of the virus is most severe.

This should have happened long ago, instead it took 32,000 Utahns becoming infected since our September surge began and more than 1,100 hospitalized, pushing intensive care units at some hospitals as well as the doctors and nurses who staff them to the brink. More than 90 Utahns have died and more hospitalizations and deaths are coming.

On Tuesday, the updated projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecast 150 Utah deaths over the next four weeks — an estimate I fear could be too low.

Earlier action from the governor, when we saw the storm building and before the strain on our hospital system became critical, could have saved lives.

Imposing a statewide mask mandate has always been a political lightning rod and has distracted from the real goal — containing the spread in the hottest hot spots. It unfortunately let Herbert point to the few cases in, say, Wayne County as an excuse not to mandate masks while sidestepping the core issue that the virus was blowing up in vast portions of the state.

(Scott G Winterton | Deseret News,pool) Richard Saunders director of the Utah Department of Health and State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn listen as Governor Gary R Herbert speaks as they announce major changes to UtahÕs COVID-19 guidance system, at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

This new approach — largely what I suggested three weeks ago should be done (along with moving high schools and colleges online and restricting bars and restaurants)— is a vast improvement and comes close to getting it right.

It imposes a mask mandate over counties where cases are surging and those on the cusp of being hot spots. It covers 98% of the state’s population, but leaves out eight counties that, on average, have seen four new cases a week.

The governor’s order requires ongoing mask-wearing for those counties with the highest rates of infection and high test positivity, and links it to metrics that are fairly easy to understand — although his threshold for high-risk counties is still too high, 50% higher than the trigger the White House Coronavirus Task Force uses to define hot spots.

There is an obvious weakness in that both Herbert and Rich Saunders, his Health Department director, acknowledged there won’t be aggressive enforcement of either the mask mandate or restrictions on the size of gatherings.

But the reality is that this has been the case since Day One. Salt Lake County never actively enforced its mask mandate and yet it still helped bring cases down in July. The Utah County sheriff made clear from the outset that he would not enforce that county’s mandate, and yet we saw cases drop precipitously after it was imposed.

“I don’t know of anybody who has been arrested or cited or fined in any place where we already have a mandate issued by the local government. I don’t expect there will be a lot of police out looking for violators,” Herbert said, although local officials will have the authority to enforce the policy as they see fit.

It’s more about sending clear messages to the public and creating concrete expectations. Business groups have also been saying for months that they like having the mandate in place because it gives owners the ability to point to the state requirements when they ask patrons to mask up, and presumably puts all businesses on the same competitive footing.

There were, naturally, those on social media who would like to have seen the governor go further, impose a mandate with teeth. And, predictably, there was an explosion of outrage from the lunatic anti-mask crowd, crying in comments during the announcement on Facebook Live that “King Herbert” was engaged in “child abuse.”

“These clowns don’t rule us, ignore the tyrants and live your life’s [sic],” one commenter said.

“I DON’T WANT MY GOVERNMENT MAKING ME WEAR A MASK ANY MORE THAN I WANT THEM MAKING ME SEW A YELLOW STAR ON MY CLOTHING,” another shrieked in capital letters.

These are the people unwilling to make the most minuscule sacrifice of comfort to protect their neighbors or friends or family. They would rather die than wear a mask. Maybe they’ll get their wish.

For the rest of the reasonable, compassionate Utahns, Tuesday’s action by the governor is a positive step, one we should all support and advance. It’s also one we had better hope works, because, if it doesn’t, we’re running out of options as fast as we’re running out of room in intensive care units.

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