Utah makes plans for ‘soft’ reopening by early May amid coronavirus outbreak

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday that Utah would begin to reopen shuttered restaurants, gyms and parks during the coronavirus outbreak as he said there were signs of the disease ebbing in the state even as two more deaths were detailed by health officials.

Utah’s decision, which would allow in-person dining and other activities possibly by the first of May, makes it one of the first states to aim to revert back to pre-pandemic life, though the governor stressed the move wasn’t going to be as swift as it would be cautious.

“We’ve still got a ways to go, but we’re much further ahead than we thought we’d be at this time," Herbert said, noting the state would begin transitioning from the “urgent” phase to a “stabilizing” one and ultimately to recovery. “This is not a light switch. This is more of a dial.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson likened that dial to more of a “dimmer.”

“We will be cautious as a state and we will make adjustments to this plan as we move forward,” said Wilson, who joined Herbert to unveil the plan to get back to the “new normal."

“We feel that we are ready to start these important steps,” said Wilson, who in opening the legislative special session on coronavirus on Thursday had identified May 1 as a target date for starting to lift economic restrictions.

Utah’s efforts to restart its economy come as President Donald Trump is urging governors to decide how best to respond to their state needs rather than apply a federal-down mandate. Herbert said Utah’s plan is “complementary, compatible” with Trump’s agenda and “very much does mirror what we already have in place.”

“We need to make sure the curve of infection is declining, which it is in Utah,” Herbert said.

Two more deaths

After Herbert spoke, the Utah Department of Health released its daily update showing two more deaths in the state, both in San Juan County, bringing the total to 23 fatalities attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The state now has 2,805 confirmed cases, officials said.

There were 122 new cases reported Friday, the eighth highest number in the past month, although down a bit from Thursday’s 141. The highest daily increase in new cases was 182 on April 4.

While Herbert was joined by fellow elected officials, a business leader, a county representative, even a leader of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Friday’s news conference, it included no health care authorities and the usual daily briefing from the state’s public health professionals wasn’t scheduled.

Herbert, however, said he is listening to health experts in enacting this economic plan.

“We don’t want to go too fast, but we don’t want to go too slow, either,” the governor said. "This isn’t just about health care, but it’s about the livelihood of our people, too. … This is about data, good science and good medicine.”

Asked whether local health departments could override the state’s plan, Herbert said, “We’re not trying to set up adversarial relationships. ... I don’t expect we’ll have much disagreement.”

The governor's plan includes a color-coded system for assessing the risk of restarting normal life.

The state had been plunged into the “red,” or high-risk area, but could move into the “orange,” or moderate-risk level in the remaining days of April and into early May when some people could go back to work while at-risk populations would remain homebound.

While Herbert said the plan would go into place when different sectors of the economy were ready — restaurants would need to be prepared for social distancing seating, for example — he ordered state parks to unlock their gates forthwith.

Herbert’s plan, dubbed Version 2.0 of his initial late March plan to combat the coronavirus, would offer flexibility for different regions of the state where urban areas are seeing more lockdown orders than rural swaths.

“We reject the one-size-fits-all mentality that often permeates government,” the governor said.

Legislature’s get-back-to-work panel

The plan renders virtually moot a bill, SB3004, lawmakers gave final approval to on Friday creating a new commission to create a framework for the next step in opening the state’s economy. The commission has been asked to present its proposed guidelines to Gov. Gary Herbert in a matter of days, by Wednesday, and he will then have to either implement them or explain why he didn’t by month’s end.

During debate on the bill, several House members raised concern about the makeup of the commission, the quick timeline for its work and that its guidelines would step on efforts already underway by the governor.

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, the bill’s House sponsor, said the commission will work “as a unified voice” and that planning for how to open the economy is already underway — this commission will just bolster and increase the speed of those efforts.

"We know this virus is going to be with us for the next six to 24 months and we cannot continue to stay home and stay safe,” he said.

Easing restrictions

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson announced Friday that county leaders are ready to relax its order that people remain at home.

Wilson said while they’re not ready for the county to go back to business as usual, it’s no longer necessary for people to stay at home as often. And restaurants, she said, will now be allowed to let people inside to order and pick up food — so long as restaurant workers wear face coverings and people stay 6 feet from one another — but dine-in eating is still barred.

The county’s stay-at-home order has been in place since March 29. Since then, Wilson said county officials have been monitoring the number of positive cases, whether hospitals stabilized, how testing capabilities for those with symptoms has increased and the ability to trace where people have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“We’ve seen success in all of those areas,” she said. “We haven’t seen enough success to go from zero to 100 and lift restrictions fully, but we’re seeing progress.”

Wilson said that as county residents leave their homes, they should take masks and face coverings with them to wear in the grocery store or when passing someone on the trails. Playgrounds continue to be closed, but she encouraged people to recreate — so long as they don't gather in groups and maintain social distancing.

"We want people to enjoy the outdoors," she said. "We have to do it with caution."

But Wilson warned this wasn’t a free-for-all. Sunday dinners with families should still be off limits and social gatherings are a no-go. She said the county is evaluating whether to continue to lift restrictions in the coming weeks, and possibly allowing some businesses, like gyms, to reopen — in line with what the governor is proposing.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she is eager to “fire up our economy’s engines as soon as possible. But we don’t want to do it at the expense of the safety and health of our residents.”

Noting that the capital is seeing the highest transmission rates in the state, she said the city will track data and trends to ensure that “we are not turning up the dial too quickly.”

The city will base its decisions on the metrics laid out in the new state plan, including seeing a consistent decrease in cases with no known source of exposure.

Gatherings over 10 and sit-down dining in restaurants are still prohibited under the countywide stay-home order, Mendenhall noted.

Restaurants are starting to prepare to open if they can — and if people are ready to patronize — and have purchased protective gear for their employees as well as mapped out floor plans to ensure a safe distance between customers, said Melva Sine, the president of the Utah Restaurant Association.

“This is what everyone's been waiting for, so we're 100% supportive and everybody's going to move that direction,” Sine said Friday.

‘Soft opening’

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Friday that state health officials were "intimately involved in how restaurants and other businesses can open safely."

For instance, orange, or “moderate,” risk level represents a “soft opening,” Dunn said. This would mean limiting gatherings to 20 rather than 10, and some businesses can open but with strict guidelines such as social distancing and hygiene requirements.

Restaurants would be able to offer dine-in services with certain provisions, Dunn said — for example, 10 feet between table edges, masks for servers, and disposable menus, she said.

“At yellow, you could have crowds of 50, and broader allowance for entertainment and those types of venues [to open],” Dunn said. “Green is even less strict than that.”

It’s a rolling opening, she said. “We’re doing it slowly while also evaluating our case counts.”

How it would work

In order to change from red, or “high,” to orange, or “moderate,” the plan recommends the following conditions be met:

• New hospitalizations must decrease for seven days.

• ICU occupancy cannot be higher than 90 percent of all beds and cannot be projected to exceed that for the next seven days.

• A minimum number of cases must be identified each day, with a “target range” of 200 to 300 new cases per day on average for a week (the seven-day average as of Friday was 112 new cases per day). Testing should occur at a target range of 4,000 to 6,000 tests per day — far beyond the present seven-day average of 1,728 tests per day.

• For seven to 14 days, cases resulting from travel, health care or unknown exposure cannot account for more than 15 percent of new diagnoses. Those cases amounted to 33 percent of new cases as of Friday.

Indicators of economic distress, such as employment data, and social health — suicide, domestic violence and requests for mental health care — also will be weighed alongside the data, the plan states.

“We have to be very careful with how we do this and how we’re looking at our data,” said Dunn. “We have to keep doing [testing and tracing] to be able to see another peak so we can recommend closure again if necessary.”

Public health pros 'at the table’

Although no health officials were present for Herbert’s unveiling of the “2.0” plan and Dunn acknowledged she was not involved in setting the statistical conditions for reopening, she said the chief deputy director of the health department was present for those conversations.

“Public health is definitely at the table giving our best guidance,” Dunn said. “There are a lot of perspectives. It’s good to bring a lot of subject matter experts to the table. ... We were definitely involved in drafting parts of this plan."

Dunn said that Utah is “lucky” to be able to have economic experts at the table with public health professionals "so we are able to address this holistically.”

Health and economic concerns are not mutually exclusive and both need to be considered, she added.

“That’s the balance I think every state is trying to figure out: How do you decrease the blow to the economy and also protect the health of the public?”

Utah was one of just eight states never under a statewide stay-at-home order, and it could be moving quicker to open up its economy and lift sanctions than other places in the country.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that some of his state parks could reopen Monday and elective surgeries could move forward soon. He also said some retailers could open up in a week, though still restricting that to curbside service.

— Tribune reporters Taylor Stevens and Jessica Miller contributed to this report.