Six weeks after Gov. Gary Herbert moved to ease COVID-19 restrictions in Box Elder County, a spike in cases locally and statewide has prompted the state to reverse course, designating Box Elder as a high-risk transmission area and implementing new requirements including a mandate for people to wear face coverings in indoor settings.
Gov. Gary Herbert announced on Sept. 10 that Box Elder County could join the list of counties operating in what the state at the time called the “green phase,” in which people and businesses would be allowed to operate more or less as usual.
As the number of positive COVID-19 cases began to rise in the ensuing weeks, the state implemented a new strategy on Oct. 15, including an order for people to wear face coverings in public for two weeks. At that time, Box Elder and most other counties were designated as “moderate transmission risk” areas. But last week, the county and several others were moved into a “high risk” tier, mandating the wearing of masks in all indoor settings and limiting all social gatherings to 10 or fewer people unless masks are worn.
The number of positive cases in Box Elder County has nearly doubled since Herbert’s order allowing the county to move to the “green” phase, from 470 on Sept. 11 to 915 as of Oct. 25. Those numbers mirror the statewide trend, with Utah seeing its total case count rise from 56,675 on Sept. 11 to 104,882 as of Oct. 25.
However, hospitalizations and deaths in the county have remained relatively low, with six deaths in Box Elder attributed to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic and four people hospitalized in the county as of last weekend, with 605 people reported as having recovered from the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
Under the new statewide public health order, a county is designated as high-transmission if it meets two of the following three requirements: The county’s seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 tests equals or exceeds 13%, the 14-day case rate is 325 per 100,000 people or higher, or the statewide utilization of intensive care unit beds reaches 72% or higher (or overall ICU utilization rate reaches or exceeds 15%).
Last Friday, the state reported the a new daily record high of 1,960 cases statewide, prompting Herbert to warn in a statement that the state is “on the brink,” and pleading with people to adhere to mask mandates in place in 21 of the state’s 29 counties. He said people should wear masks anytime they are with people beside their immediate family, even if its extended family or friends.
Capacity at the state’s intensive care units reached 76% last week, with more people hospitalized this week for COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic, state figures show.
“Up until now, our hospitals have been able to provide good care to all COVID and non-COVID patients who need it. But today we stand on the brink,” Herbert said. “If Utahns do not take serious steps to limit group gatherings and wear masks, our healthcare providers will not have the ability to provide quality care for everyone who needs it.”
Utah had the seventh-highest rate of newly confirmed infections per capita last Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
Under high-risk status, those hosting events in which 10 or more people are expected to attend must have a facemask requirement in place and fill out a form provided by the state health department outlining the precautions that will be in place. Events must also adhere to a 6-foot social distancing requirement unless they obtain a waiver from the local health department.
Schools are operating under a separate, statewide order, and the face-covering requirement for students, faculty and staff at all public schools remains in place. The new state public health order does not apply to religious services, although faith-based organizations are strongly encouraged to follow the recommendations.
In response to new state guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19, Tremonton’s annual trick or treat event planned for this Friday is moving to a drive-through format.
Organizers of the city’s annual Trick or Treat on Main Street changed plans for the tradition after learning last week that Box Elder County now falls under high-risk requirements issued by the Utah Department of Health in mid-October.
Instead of going door-to-door to Main Street businesses, people are invited to visit the Box Elder County Fairgrounds from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30, where volunteers will be waiting to distribute bags of candy to trick or treaters while they remain in their vehicles.
The event will be staged in the large gravel parking area west of the main rodeo arena at the fairgrounds.
Instead of handing out candy at their individual locations, businesses were encouraged to donate candy for Friday’s event. Monica Holdaway, executive director of the Box Elder Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event, said local businesses stepped up with “huge amounts” of candy, so there should be plenty for all who show up.
“This is a great community event that kids love, and the Chamber still wants to have an opportunity for the kids to receive treats,” Holdaway said. “After some brainstorming, the way we can accomplish this is to have a drive-through event.”
For more information, call the Box Elder Chamber at (435) 723-3931.
With new requirements and guidelines for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic being implemented across the state, including in Box Elder County, local business groups are joining together in an effort to identify and let people know which businesses are committed to following safety protocols.
The Box Elder Chamber of Commerce is one of many groups statewide that have partnered with the Salt Lake Chamber in the Utah Department of Health’s “Stay Safe to Stay Open” initiative, an effort to communicate to the public which businesses are taking precautions.
Participating businesses take a pledge to follow several guidelines and recommendations to prevent and minimize the spread of the coronavirus. While the program is entirely voluntary, those who participate are listed in an online directory and receive colorful signage to put up in their businesses to let customers know they have committed to various safety measures that are encouraged or required by the state.
With most counties in Utah now listed as high-risk for COVID-19 transmission under the state’s most recent guidelines, the Stay Safe to Stay Open program has been sending ambassadors to communities all over the state to get their message out. Program representatives were in Box Elder County last week, driving a van marked with the program’s logo in an effort to get more local businesses to “take the pledge.”
The program launched in July, but is making a renewed effort to get the word out in local communities under the new state regulations.
Monica Holdaway, president of the Box Elder Chamber, said more than 80 businesses in the county had signed up as of last week, with most of those signups coming in the last month.
“2020 has been a tough year for everyone, but we need to continue to support our local businesses to keep the economy open safely,” Holdaway said. “Those that take the pledge are added to a statewide directory that Utahns can review to assure that when they go into a store, restaurant or office that the businesses are adhering to Utah Department of Health guidelines. They will know what to expect, and what is expected of them.”
She said the directory, available on the program website at www.stayopenutah.com, is easy to use as people can search for a list of businesses by county, or by entering a specific business name to see if it is participating.
In order to get listed, businesses agree to follow a list of guidelines that include: checking symptoms of employees before work and having them stay home when sick; having employees wash hands frequently and avoiding touching their faces; practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings when they are in close proximity to others; learning about high-risk groups and helping to protect them; covering mouths when coughing or sneezing; regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces; and following public health guidelines as they are updated.
Josie Beth Archibald, general manager of The Peak, which offers sports, education and other activities for children at its facility in Perry, said the program has been a valuable resource for planning its operations during the pandemic.
“It has allowed us to navigate and communicate changes in a smooth and consistent manner,” Archibald said. “Our staff understands what they need to do, and it sends a clear message to anyone entering our facility what is expected and what our top priority is, which is their safety.”
Box Elder County Commissioner and local business owner Jeff Scott said the goal is simply for local businesses to be able to continue to provide their products and services, and “we can’t do that if everyone is sick.
“Really all that any of us want as business owners is for families and our customers to be healthy and safe,” Scott said. “Let’s all do our part to keep everyone healthy and at the same time keep our economy moving forward.”
For more information or to sign up, visit www.stayopenutah.com.
Public schools in Box Elder County will start operating with shorter school days beginning this Thursday, a move intended to give teachers more time to work with students who can’t attend in person.
Starting on Oct. 29, all schools from kindergarten through 12th grade will begin their days one hour later than they have been during the first two months of the 2020-21 school year.
The Box Elder School District last week sent out a letter from Superintendent Steve Carlsen to parents of schoolchildren explaining the change and the reasoning behind it. The main reason for the change, Carlsen wrote, is to provide teachers with extra time “to help the students who are quarantined or in isolation keep up.
“COVID-19 protocols require students or an employee to quarantine because of exposure, or a student or employee is to stay in isolation because of a positive case,” the letter states. “These protocols have put a lot of pressure on our teachers.”
The shorter school day doesn’t mean shorter days for teachers, who are expected to use the extra hour to focus on students who are learning remotely from home.
The district’s goal has been to maintain a regular five-day schedule for students to attend school in person.
Teachers are expected to keep up with their face-to-face instruction in the classrooms while continuing to help those who are quarantined, isolated, or staying home because of illness.
“There is not enough time in the school day schedule for the teachers to keep up with this extra task,” Carlsen wrote.
He said many other school districts in Utah have already implemented shorter days for the same reason.
The district had already been operating on a schedule that included later starts and earlier end times on Wednesdays. The new schedule will eliminate the early end time on Wednesdays, making the daily schedule the same for all five weekdays.
The change means bus schedules will also shift to one hour later in the mornings. For preschool and kindergarten, the district is asking parents to check with individual schools for bus arrival and departure times. Individual schools or transportation providers will alert parents of any changes, the letter states.
According to Carlsen, the district will evaluate the effectiveness of the new strategy while monitoring the numbers of COVID-19 cases, students in quarantine, and those who are staying home because of any illness. It will look at those factors “every three to four weeks.
“In this particular case, we will look at those numbers as Thanksgiving break approaches, and then again as Christmas break approaches,” he wrote.
The district anticipates returning to full-day, in-person instruction once the numbers have subsided, but did not provide specific numbers that need to be reached in order to return to a full schedule.
Carlsen’s letter acknowledged that the schedule change will cause some difficulties with childcare for some families, but said it’s a necessary to move to help ensure the safety of everyone involved.
“We feel strongly we have to take these measures to ensure our excellent teaching staff’s health and effectiveness,” he wrote. “Thank you in advance for your efforts to understand and support this critical issue.”