The governor of Utah declared a new state of emergency and announced new restrictions Sunday night aimed at getting a handle on the current wave of the novel coronavirus overwhelming hospitals in the state.
“In our war against COVID-19, we need our doctors and our nurses, and now they need us,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in a prerecorded statement released Sunday night. “They are pleading for our help. The stakes are high. Lives are at risk as COVID-19 cases surge and we report record hospitalizations and new deaths day after day.”
Herbert announced four new restrictions effective Monday and lasting for at least the next two weeks:
– Masks or face coverings will be required in public. Businesses must require employees to wear masks and promote mask-wearing to patrons in visible signage.
– Residents may not participate in or host casual social gatherings with individuals other than those in their immediate household.
– All school sports and extracurricular activities are postponed for the next two weeks, with the exception of high school championship games and intercollegiate sports.
– College students who attend at least one in-person class a week or who live on campus housing must be tested for the virus weekly. Unlike the other new orders, which go into effect Monday, this provision is effective “as soon as possible, but no later than January 1.”
In Cache County, the rate at which new cases are coming in is still increasing. As of Monday, the rolling 7-day average of new cases reported daily was 122, the highest it’s ever been in the district that includes Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties. There are about 1,950 estimated active cases in the district; nearly 1,400 of those are in Cache and only five of them are in Rich. More than 20% of COVID-19 tests performed in the district came back positive for the seven days ending on Nov. 5.
Spokesperson Tim Smith said he believes the Cache County School District is overall appreciative of the governor’s new measures.
“We, for a while, have felt like it’s important to somehow get a handle” on COVID-19 spreading locally, Smith said. “We’ve managed the number of cases in the schools pretty well as the numbers have gone up in the community around us. And that’s been concerning to us, because we know that eventually what happens in the community will impact what’s happening in the schools.”
The number of confirmed cases among students in the district was 28 as of Nov. 4, down from a high of 45 reported on Oct. 13. While so far individual schools in the county have stayed well below the threshold of 15 students at which the state recommends a suspension of in-person classes, school officials have said that managing contact tracing and quarantine among the student body becomes a problem well before that point.
“I think we’re supportive of where the governor’s going, because we, frankly, want to keep schools open and keep activities happening, and we can’t do that very well when the community numbers are growing at the rate they have been,” Smith said.
Herbert said he understands that the new restrictions will require many families to cancel plans in the next two weeks and may alter holiday celebrations.
“Many of you will have questions about how to gather safely during the upcoming holidays,” Herbert said. “We will share with you recommendations and directives in the coming days.”
Utah State University announced Monday that it will be ready to meet the testing requirement beginning this week and emailed students with instructions.
“We are concerned as we look at students heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and these actions are an effort to protect our students themselves, but also their family members and our own Aggie family,” USU President Noelle Cockett stated in the release.
USU had already planned to move its classes entirely online after the fall break to reduce travel between students’ homes and campus. The governor’s announcement came as the university was already ramping up its free testing for students and employees to make sure it was available for those planning to travel for the holidays.
Testing will be available for students living on-campus this week, and the university will test students living off-campus next week.
Herbert said public gatherings that flout mask-wearing and social distancing won’t be tolerated.
“State and local authorities will prosecute and hold accountable those who sponsor and organize such events and gatherings,” Herbert said. “Organizers will be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per occurrence.”
So far, officials with Cache County and the Bear River Health Department have been grappling with how to enforce coronavirus restrictions. BRHD released a statement on Thursday to “plead with event planners and venue organizers to ensure requirements from the state’s public health order are followed and not dismissed once the event begins.”
Herbert pushed back against the anti-mask propaganda common on social media and even among some politicians.
“Masks do not negatively affect our economy, and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus,” Herbert said. “Experts tell us that masks do not cause a shortage of oxygen to your brain or cause disease. We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer.
“Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom,” Herbert said. “Laws are put in place to protect all of us. That’s why we have traffic lights and speed limits and seat belts. And that’s why we now have a mask mandate.”
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who was elected the state’s next governor last week, announced that the state is working on increasing testing among demographics such as young people, who research shows can often spread the virus without ever showing any symptoms.
“While we ask Utahns to do some heavy lifting, we’re also significantly ramping up targeted testing in age groups that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us are frequently asymptomatic.”
The state is mobilizing additional National Guard resources to implement this testing, according to Sunday’s statement, beginning with the weekly testing for college students, “testing for students who participate in extracurricular activities, and eventual workplace testing for people 35 and younger, since this age group is most likely to be asymptomatic if they contract COVID-19.”