June was a bad month, but Gov. Gary Herbert says Utah still plans to reopen schools

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stands in front of a modified Boeing 747 called the Dreamlifter at Salt Lake City International Airport on July 1, 2020. The airplane, operated by Atlas Air, delivered 500,000 cloth masks to be distributed to schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday the state has “done a pretty good job” addressing the pandemic and is poised to reopen schools next month even as he acknowledged the recent spikes in infection rates.

“We certainly plan on” resuming in-person classes opening on time, Herbert said, addressing reporters and a small, physically distanced crowd Wednesday at the UPS facility at Salt Lake City International Airport, where he welcomed more than 500,000 masks that arrived aboard an extra-tall Boeing 747 to be distributed to educators and their students.

Herbert talked about efforts to guard public health and keep Utah’s economy going. He cited two numbers: a coronavirus mortality rate of less than 1% (said to be the lowest in the nation) and an unemployment rate of 8.5% (far lower than most states).

“It’s not been an easy thing to do,” he said. “It’s a balancing act. It’s a threading of the needle, but we’ve done a pretty good job.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson stood beside three students Wednesday to thank the businesses and public agencies that purchased and delivered the masks. Dickson said school districts and charter schools must submit plans by Aug. 1 explaining how they will reopen and guard child health.

“We want these students to be able to go back to school in the fall,” Dickson said. “That’s key.”

But some medical experts are openly questioning whether that can or should happen, especially given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases.

At a discussion Tuesday hosted by Utah’s Silicon Slopes technology sector, Dr. Ellen Arch with Intermountain Healthcare warned that restarting school this fall with the rates across the state shooting up would be dangerous.

“Honestly,” she said, “I don’t see how we would be able to.”

Arch fears a return to in-person classes would also make the virus spread much further and faster. And, she expects, the state might need to shut down entirely if campuses reopen.

“Children being at school together in groups, without being able to physically distance or wearing masks,” she said, “is going to cause that infection to rise.”

Dr. Andrew Pavia, who oversees the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah’s hospitals, agreed. He told Clint Betts, the executive director of Silicon Slopes, in the online conversation: “If we can’t get the numbers down, we can’t reopen schools.”

Wednesday’s report did little to change that grim outlook. The state recorded another 499 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Utah Department of Health announced, with one more Utahn dying from the disease.

A Salt Lake County man, between ages 65 and 84 and in a hospital, was the fatality, UDOH reported. His death lifted the state’s coronavirus toll to 173 people.

Another 32 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the state report. There were 194 people hospitalized in Utah as of Tuesday (hospitalization figures are a day behind case counts), and there have been 1,476 Utahns hospitalized with COVID-19 since the first cases struck in March.

The state’s hospitals are warning they may soon run out of bed space.

Wednesday’s new cases boosted the state’s total number of cases to 22,716. Of those, 12,707 are considered “recovered” — meaning, by the state’s definition, it’s been three weeks since they were diagnosed and they’re alive.

Another 2,605 tests were administered Wednesday, raising the total number of Utahns tested to 343,358. The rate of positive tests for the past seven days is 11.8%, and it’s at 6.6% since the first cases were reported in March.

The state has averaged 561.7 cases per day in the past week. That’s well above the 200-cases-per-day average the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, said in an internal memo last month would be necessary by July 1 for the state to avoid a “complete shutdown” of its economy.

“We’re concerned about some of the rising infection rates you see here in the last couple of weeks,” Herbert said, “and [residents need to] turn the tide on that infection rate and bend the curve again as we did in the beginning.”

Although Utah has been grappling with the coronavirus for 3½ months, he said, “it seems like 3½ years. This has been a hard, challenging time for our state, for our country.”

The governor again encouraged Utahns to wear a mask to reduce the spread. He has allowed Salt Lake and Summit counties to require them. He said he would review a request from Grand County to require masks there as well and make a decision within the next few days. Under state law, municipalities can not pass mask ordinances without approval from the governor’s office.

The half-million cloth masks airlifted to Utah on Wednesday are part of the “Mask for Every Utahn” initiative. The reusable face coverings are for students and teachers to slow the spread of the coronavirus when schools reopen.

H.M. Cole, a custom clothing store in Salt Lake City, donated 250,000 masks, according to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Of those, 100,000 masks are sized for children.

Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear brand based in Utah’s capital, donated another 250,000 masks and converted one of its jacket manufacturers for temporary face mask production. Other face coverings and their transportation — including help from Boeing, Atlas Air, UPS and Flexport — came courtesy of a combination of corporate donations, state money and federal relief funds.

“A Mask for Every Utahn” has received orders from 272,156 households that have requested 1.16 million masks.

(Nate Carlisle | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson speaks in front of a modified Boeing 747 called the Dream Lifter at Salt Lake City International Airport on July 1, 2020. Dickson was joined by students Leyson Bryant, age 6, left, Joanna McConkie, 6, and Tommy Mansell, 14. Everyone on the tarmac was required to wear a safety vest. The airplane, operated by Atlas Air, delivered 500,000 cloth masks to be distributed to schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

At the airport, Herbert had to pause his remarks or speak up a few times as jets took off from a nearby runway.

“That,” he said at one point, “is the sound of commerce.”

Editor’s note • Clint Betts serves on the The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.