Utah’s governor won’t limit Thanksgiving gatherings as state reports 18 coronavirus deaths

(Spenser Heaps | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during his monthly news conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

A new public health order next week no longer will require Utahns to limit social gatherings to people in their households, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday.

But while the governor said that “what you do in the confines of your own home is going to be up to you,” he and other state leaders are still urging caution ahead of Thanksgiving next week.

“We know that the more people who gather together in an interaction, the closer you have a physical interaction, the longer that that interaction lasts, the more risky that situation becomes in catching or spreading COVID-19,” Herbert said Thursday during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah.

With the holiday a week away, Utah reported a record 18 coronavirus deaths Thursday along with record-high case rates.

With 3,968 new cases reported Thursday, the state has averaged 3,169 new positive test results a day, continuing a streak of new record highs, the Utah Department of Health reported.

[Read more: Utah’s COVID-19 vaccine plan: Front-line health workers as soon as December, all Utahns by July]

Thursday marked the virus’s deadliest single day, week and month in Utah, with state officials reporting an overall death toll of 756. Two previous deaths were removed from the count, but there were 18 fatalities reported in the past day:

  • A Davis County man, age 65 to 84.

  • Three Salt Lake County men, two ages 65 to 84 and one age 45 to 64.

  • Two Salt Lake County women, one age 65 to 84 and the other over 85.

  • A Summit County woman older than 85.

  • Three Utah County women, two ages 65 to 84 and one older than 85.

  • Two Utah County men older than 85.

  • A Wasatch County woman older than 85.

  • A Weber County woman older than 85.

  • Two Washington County women, one age 65 to 84 and the other over 85.

  • Two Washington County men, one age 65 to 84 and the other over 85.

And prison officials announced Wednesday night that a fourth person incarcerated at their Draper facility has died after testing positive for the virus.

The 71-year-old man had been hospitalized since Saturday and died Tuesday evening. He tested positive for the virus Nov. 4, while he was housed in the Oquirrh 5 unit — the place where the state’s most medically vulnerable prisoners live.

There are currently 780 people in the prison’s two facilities who have tested positive and are still considered to have active coronavirus cases.

The state reported 535 Utahns concurrently hospitalized for COVID-19 Thursday. In total, 7,215 Utah patients have been admitted to hospitals for the coronavirus, up 108 from Wednesday. There have been nearly 730 Utahns reported hospitalized in the past week — the most of any seven-day stretch since the pandemic began.

The rising hospitalizations have prompted doctors and health officials to warn against any Thanksgiving gatherings involving people who don’t live together.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pleaded with Americans on Thursday not to travel for Thanksgiving and not to spend the holiday with people from outside their household.

“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year is at home with the people in your household,” said the CDC’s Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz, who cited more than 1 million new cases in the U.S. over the past week as the reason for the new guidance.

But Herbert extended advice to Utahns who plan to gather in larger groups anyway, as his order will allow, recommending masks, social distancing and keeping celebrations small.

People should also consider truncating their celebrations, he said, to minimize risk and eating outside when possible.

“Down south, it’s easier to have warmer weather, you can gather outside; but even if you gather inside here in the northern part of the state, you ought to have proper ventilation,” Herbert noted. “Turn on the fans. Open the windows. Have circulation of the air that makes it less risky.”

The public health guidance for the holiday extends to food preparation, as well. Herbert recommended that those who are cooking frequently wash their hands and wear a mask and that everyone to avoid potluck-style dinners as much as possible.

Herbert recognized that not everyone will follow the guidance but said he’s been pleased to see increased compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing among individuals and businesses.

“So, yes, I think people will, in fact, modify their behavior,” he said. “Will everybody? Probably not. That may just be some of human nature, but I expect enough people will do this that we’ll have a better time than if we just disregard these recommendations.”

It is likely that gatherings will include people who are infected but don’t know it. For the past week, 23.7% of all tests in Utah have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said.

The virus continued to spread most rapidly in Garfield, Sevier and Utah counties, followed by Wasatch, Salt Lake and Cache counties. In all six counties, more than one in every 75 people have tested positive in the past two weeks — which means they are considered to have active cases.

But the highest concentration of new cases remains in the northern neighborhoods of Orem, where one in every 40 people have tested positive in the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, the highest hospitalization rates per capita were in southwest Utah, according to state data.

While the governor indicated that there will be changes to the guidance on social gatherings when the current public health order expires next week, he said the state mask mandate will remain — a health intervention he long avoided but now praises as boosting the economy by helping people feel more comfortable going out. He also extolled data that shows mask-wearing helps reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus.

While Herbert reiterated that the new health order won’t mandate what people do inside their own homes, he also stressed the importance of Utahns taking the virus seriously and doing what they can to minimize its spread of their own volition.

“We would like you to not smoke tobacco inside your own home, either,” he said. “It’s not only hazardous to your health, but it’s hazardous to the people around you with secondhand smoke. You do what you want but that’s not the good counsel and recommendations from the health care experts. Well, this is a similar thing.”