There’s been no documented cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Utah — but that doesn’t mean that concern over coronavirus hasn’t already had significant impacts on people around the state.
Utah officials have said it’s just a matter of time before the virus hits here. They’ve urged people to take extra precautions, like washing your hands more frequently, and make a plan in case you do get sick and need to be quarantined at home for two weeks.
Businesses, schools and government officials reacted by canceling conferences, swearing off handshakes and halting travel. Here’s a look at how concern over the virus has affected Utah so far:
Provo-based tech company Qualtrics announced Tuesday that it will postpone it’s annual X4 summit, which was expected to bring 16,000 attendees to Salt Lake City next week. Ellen DeGeneres, Michelle Obama and Matthew McConaughey were all slated to speak, and The Killers were expected to perform next Thursday during the conference. Qualtrics said it would reschedule the event sometime in early fall.
Domopalooza, a tech conference that was expected to bring 3,000 people to downtown Salt Lake City, switched to an online-only event, the American Fork-based company Domo announced last week. With conference attendees estimated to spend more than $900 each in Salt Lake City, the removal of the event from the Salt Palace could cost local vendors and merchants up to $2.7 million, said Shawn Stinson, spokesman for Visit Salt Lake.
No more handshakes
Utah lawmakers and visitors to the Capitol were warned Tuesday to keep their hands clean and, preferably, to themselves amid growing fears over a likely outbreak of coronavirus.
Signs placed around the Capitol complex — particularly near the House of Representatives offices and chamber — declared public spaces to be “a handshake-free zone.” And House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, took time during morning debate to urge lawmakers to stay away if they or their interns are feeling under the weather.
“I’m watching everyone grab their hand sanitizer as I talk about this, which is a good practice,” Wilson said from the speaker’s dais. “You should also wash your hands with hot water regularly.”
Wilson said that he and other House leaders met Monday with members of the governor’s staff and representatives of the Utah Department of Health to discuss the spread of the COVID-19 strain. He said the issue is serious, and the state is doing everything it can to be prepared for the “likely” arrival of the virus.
“I think we’re in good hands,” Wilson said. “But let’s not do hand-shaking the rest of the session.”
The loss of Chinese tourism alone is noticeable in southern Utah, said Lance Syrett, manager of Ruby’s Inn near Bryce Canyon.
“It’s just ground to a standstill,” Syrett said Tuesday. The cancellations have mostly come from Chinese tour operators, Syrett said. In the past five years, Chinese tourism has gone from less than 2% of traffic at the hotel, to closer to 10 to 15%, he said.
Large groups, which can take up to 50 rooms, typically are required to cancel more than a month in advance, but Syrett said he’s relaxing the hotel’s cancellation policy in hopes that the same visitors will reschedule in the future.
“The worst thing is the business you have on the books who cancel. You’ve already advertised to them, they’ve made the decision to come — and now they aren’t,” he said. “That’s always a kick in the pants.”
New reservations also are down about 15%, at least for the spring, he said. “There’s a wait-and-see. Everybody’s a little bit nervous, a little bit scared,” Syrett said.
But reservations for summer are holding steady, he noted. “We get the vibe most of our customers are thinking by May or June this thing will be figured out.”
University travel affected
The University of Utah announced Tuesday that it was suspending all university-affiliated study-abroad and international travel programs for spring 2020. Employees and students have been asked to limit nonessential travel, and university trips to Florida and Washington are “suspended,” university officials wrote in an email Tuesday.
“The Department of Athletics is working with the Pac-12 Conference to evaluate team and student-athlete travel plans,” the notice stated.
Alternative Spring Break tips in the U.S. and abroad have been suspended, and students enrolled at the Utah Asia Campus in South Korea are doing online-only coursework until April, university officials wrote.
Southern Utah University said Monday that it will cease its study abroad program in Italy and bring 33 students and three faculty members home as soon as possible. One faculty member did show signs of an illness, school officials said, and was tested for the virus — but it came back negative.
Feds not prepared
Under questioning from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the United States doesn’t have the capacity to produce a vaccine for the coronavirus should there be a widespread outbreak.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it could take up to a year and a half to make enough vaccines and would have to count on the private sector.
“The ones who can do that essentially are the pharmaceutical companies,” Fauci testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday. “The federal government is not going to be able to make hundreds of millions of doses; it’s going to have to be a partnership with the private sector.”
Romney also pointed out — as he has previously — that the United States appears unprepared for a pandemic despite warnings and that the blame lies with Congress for not putting enough money into prevention.
The Utah Republican senator asked health officials testifying before the committee how many masks the government had ready and how many it needed.
Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, said a severe pandemic would require 3.5 billion N95 respirators. The government currently has 35 million.
“So about 10%?” Romney said.
“Ten percent,” Kadlec confirmed, “and we are working actively on that.”
— Tribune reporters Jessica Miller, Erin Alberty, Benjamin Wood and Thomas Burr contributed to this article.