Utah governor orders statewide mask mandate, new coronavirus restrictions

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[Updated: Gov. Gary Herbert says data drove decision for new state of COVID-19 emergency]

Utah’s governor declared a new state of emergency late Sunday after the state’s most devastating week of the pandemic, as COVID-19 infections skyrocketed and deaths hit new highs. His big concern is the surge in hospitalizations that may soon overwhelm doctors and nurses.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued a series of new restrictions, including a statewide mask mandate — a step he has resisted for months.

Unlike other restrictions, the governor intends to extend the mask mandate “for the foreseeable future.” Businesses that fail to comply will face fines.

The new executive orders are signed by Herbert and by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is the governor-elect. They limit any social gatherings to people in the same households and place a hold on all school extracurricular activities, including athletic and intramural events.

These restrictions take effect at 1 p.m. Monday and will end Nov. 23, just a few days before Thanksgiving. The governor said the state will offer holiday recommendations in the coming days.

This order doesn’t require any business to close, but businesses and event hosts must require social distancing.

The order does not apply to churches.

[Read more: How to navigate Utah’s emergency COVID-19 order: Schools, bars, football and more]

It doesn’t require any schools to go online — despite a teachers union pushing for junior high and high schools to go virtual.

The new restrictions don’t stop professional or college sports or the completion of the high school playoffs as long as coaches and athletes test negative and the crowds are severely limited. The order says there can be two attendees for every player or coach.

People can eat in restaurants if they can stay 6 feet apart from other groups. Eating with people not in your household is strongly discouraged. Bars must close at 10 p.m. each night.

“Utah is open for business. You can still shop, dine in or carry out, exercise, worship and recreate, and many other things,” Herbert said in a video message. “We are just saying stay within your household group whenever possible, particularly for the next two weeks.”

Herbert did say that state and local authorities would crack down on the “organizers of public gatherings that do not exercise the required precautions of social distancing and mask-wearing.” He said organizers would face fines up to $10,000 per occurrence. This comes after multiple dance parties held in Utah County attracted hundreds if not thousands of young people, many who didn’t wear masks. And some clubs in Salt Lake County ignored the mask mandate there.

The emergency order comes after frustrated and weary medical professionals have complained that Herbert and the state haven’t taken strong enough steps to stop the out-of-control spread of COVID-19. Some have called for stay-at-home orders, though the steps Herbert approved are far from that.

“In our war against COVID-19, we need our doctors and our nurses,” Herbert said. “And now they need us. They are pleading for our help.”

Utah is now averaging more than 2,000 cases a day, and 46 people died of the virus last week. On Sunday, the state reported 424 active COVID-19 hospitalizations, a number that has risen from 299 two weeks ago.

“This is recognition from the governor that something has to change, that we are on an unsustainable path with our case counts and that we have to have some kind of major disruption to really drive down community-based transmission,” said Dr. Edward Stenehjem, infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Healthcare. “And so, this is a good first step.”

The incubation period of COVID-19 is about two weeks. That means new restrictions usually take a few weeks to determine if they made the anticipated impact.

“If we want at all to be safe as we move into the holiday season, certainly Thanksgiving and Christmas, we have to drive down our case rates now,” Stenehjem said. “And so taking this two-week pause, driving the case rates down aggressively is going to be so important for the health of our communities, but also the economic health of our communities.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn supports the new orders, tweeting her thanks to the governor and writing, “It is time to unite Utah.”

The state notified Utahns through a rare emergency signal sent to cellphones that directed people to watch or listen to the governor’s message. The state has used the emergency alert system once before during this pandemic, sending a notice on Oct. 31 that said in part, “COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Record cases. Almost every county is a high transmission area.”

The new emergency orders come less than a month after Herbert replaced the state’s color-coded restriction level system with a new transmission index by county, putting places with high rates of infection under a mandate. That change failed to slow the rising number of infections.

The wearing of face masks has become a contentious political issue.

The mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have been calling for a statewide order for months, but Herbert didn’t want to push a mandate on more rural areas where COVID-19 wasn’t as prevalent. And he has been sympathetic to those who don’t want the government to mandate what they wear.

But the latest surge is touching every corner of the state.

“We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer,” Herbert said. “Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom. Laws are put in place to protect all of us. That’s why we have traffic lights, speed limits and seat belts, and that’s why we now have a mask mandate.”

He added, “It is time for the divisiveness to end, and for all of us as Utahns to unite in making whatever sacrifices are necessary to help our neighbor, and to bring healing back to our state.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall called Herbert’s order “overdue” as she encouraged people to follow it. “Let’s all make these reasonable sacrifices.”

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, in a series of tweets Sunday night, praised the deployment of the Utah National Guard for contact tracing and the fines to be levied on those organizing large gatherings.

“Sadly,” Ghorbani added, “the governor’s actions are months and hundreds of lives too late. For many, trust in his leadership to stop the spread of COVID in our state has eroded.”

Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, applauded Herbert’s order in a tweet Monday, but warned that “the biggest challenge for many of us including my family will be to limit the interaction our kids have with their friends.”

Under the new statewide mandate, all Utahns must wear masks in public and when within 6 feet of anyone with whom they don’t live. Businesses must require employees and customers to wear masks. Signs must be posted. Businesses that fail to follow the order will be subject to fines from the Labor Commission, which would mark the first time a Utah government attempted to enforce a mask mandate.

Exceptions to the mask mandate include when a person is eating or drinking, exercising while social distancing, or when performing before an audience.

Beyond this, Utah leaders are taking new steps to expand testing and the tracing of anyone an infected person comes in contact with.

As soon as possible, but no later than Jan. 1, all college students who live on campus or attend at least one in-person class per week will be required to be tested for COVID-19 weekly. This includes public and private colleges.

The University of Utah intends to test all of its students before the Thanksgiving break, responding to suggestions from Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Deborah Birx, from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, who visited Herbert and health officials last week.

According to U. spokesman Chris Nelson, Redfield and Birx said, “It’s not only for the safety of your students, it’s for the safety of the communities they’re returning to.”

The state plans to start an accelerated testing program that eventually will seek to test people 35 and younger in the workplace. Young adults are most likely to be asymptomatic, and if they don’t know they have the virus, they are more likely to spread it to others.

The targeted, asymptomatic testing among younger Utahns should help slow the surge, said Rich Saunders, executive director of the Utah Department of Health.

That includes in public schools.

State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson encourages more testing but doesn’t want to see schools go all virtual, worried that it leaves some students behind. She said students and teachers are diligent when in class and the problem has come from social gatherings and extracurricular activities, which the order restricts.

“It’s the athletics activities, the parties, the social gatherings, the family gatherings,” she said. “So my hope is that this will help deal with the virus to mitigate it, and stop it at the school door.”

But this isn’t enough according to the Utah Education Association, which wants middle schools and high schools to go online.

“There is a distinct contradiction in calling for limits to social gatherings while our public schools continue with class sizes among the largest in the country,” said UEA President Heidi Matthews. “Our public school educators simply cannot continue to be ignored in their concerns about social distancing, testing, proper quarantine measures and workload.”

Cox, who won his race for governor Tuesday, said the timing of this action had nothing to do with this week’s election and instead is a reaction to two things: that the new transmission index for counties was too confusing and that Utah saw cases spike this week.

He said, “We needed to simplify and make the message more direct.”

Cox reiterated that federal officials expect a vaccine to be approved in December and the slow rollout will begin then.

“Our ability to get back to normal is coming very soon,” he said, “but it’s crunch time right now.”

In response to Herbert’s order banning extracurricular activities for two weeks, the Utah High School Athletics Association — the group that oversees high school sports — announced it would suspend all winter sports through Nov. 23. That includes tryouts and practices for basketball and wrestling, for both boys and girls.

Utah sports-radio host Spence Checketts responded with a cynical comment on Twitter: “You can’t play sports unless it generates revenue.”

Nationally, Dr. Eric Feigl-Deng, an epidemiologist and frequent commentator on cable news, reacted Sunday: “Wow. Utah’s GOP governor is coming to grips with reality.” Feigl-Deng asked when South Dakota Gov. Kristin Noem and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose states also have experienced surges in COVID-19 cases, will follow Herbert’s lead.