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Box Elder County has become the first county in Northern Utah to move to a minimum restriction level under the state’s plan to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced during his weekly press conference on Thursday, Sept. 10, that the state has granted the county permission to move into the “green” or “new normal” phase of reopening, effective Friday, Sept. 11. Carbon County in the east-central part of the state also moved to the less restrictive phase last Friday.

The move to “green” is from the “yellow,” or low-risk phase, in which Box Elder and most of the state have been for several months.

The biggest changes from moving from yellow to green are the ability to hold large gatherings of more than 50 people without social distancing requirements. Restaurants, which have been open but with limited seating, are also allowed to fully open again.

People in counties that are in the green phase are still encouraged to follow a set of general guidelines and precautions related to COVID-19, including regular hand washing, maintaining social distancing in public settings, wearing face coverings when social distancing is difficult to maintain, staying home when sick, and symptom checks prior to participation in team sports competitions or practices.

For businesses, the guidelines include taking “reasonable” precautions and the encouragement of flexible work arrangements, with a recommendation, but not a requirement, to keep social distancing practices in place.

“We want to emphasize to people that this doesn’t mean the risk level has gone down,” Herbert said. “In fact, in some instances because we now have the ability to have more social gathering under a green condition, you might have even higher risk.”

Box Elder is the first county in Northern Utah, and the first with more than 50,000 residents, to make the move to the green phase.

Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers said the move is good news for service and entertainment-oriented businesses in the county, like restaurants and movie theaters, which have been closed or operating under limitations for the past six months.

“We (the commission) appreciate everybody who’s been helping in stopping the spread,” Summers said. “It’s the reason we’ve been able to do what we can.”

While last month’s Box Elder County Fair was scaled back considerably due to COVID restrictions, the county was able to proceed with the Golden Spike Rodeo, which Summers said drew more than 14,000 people over a four-day period to the main rodeo arena at the fairgrounds in Tremonton. There hasn’t been a significant increase in cases since that event, and the arena is scheduled to hold a live concert with Lee Greenwood and Restless Heart this Saturday.

The county first petitioned the state to move to green in mid-June, citing a lower incidence of COVID-19 spread compared with more populated areas of the state, specifically the Wasatch Front.

At the end of last week, there had been 470 documented cases in Box Elder County — less than 1 percent of the 56,675 cases reported statewide.

Summers said the hope is that moving to the green phase represents a step toward getting rid of the requirement for all students and others on school properties to wear facemasks at all times. That decision would have to come from the state, which has not yet signaled any intention to move toward rescinding the school mask rule.

The county’s move to lower-risk status comes with the blessing of the Bear River Health Department, which provided figures and reasoning to the Utah Department of Health on behalf of the county.

“We continue to see positive indicators as we march closer to the finish line of putting this pandemic behind us,” BRHD Executive Director Lloyd Berentzen wrote in a message posted to the local health department’s website on Friday. “We have kept the COVID virus at bay for the past two months. Our incidence rate has been steadily declining since the end of June.”

Berentzen added that hospitalization rates in the Bear River Health District, which includes Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties, have followed a statewide trend of decreasing significantly in recent weeks and months.

“All of these things indicate positive steps toward the suppression of disease,” he wrote.

The health department has started to turn its attention toward a vaccine and how it will be distributed once it becomes available. Berentzen said it will be offered to the most vulnerable populations at first, including senior citizens and people with pre-existing conditions that make them more susceptible to potentially fatal complications if they contract the virus.

“In the meantime, there is substantial planning happening to prepare for the most efficient and effective way the vaccine will be made available,” he wrote.

Herbert said there are more counties “in the queue” that have petitioned the state to move to the green phase, and the state is working with them.

“We would anticipate that would happen, and other counties will have the ability to shift to green in the near future.”

Box Elder joins 12 other mostly rural counties that have moved to green, including Beaver, Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Kane, Millard, Piute, Sevier, Uintah and Wayne.

Herbert said he is still concerned about complacency — “that people think we’re really out of the woods and don’t need to comply with some of the recommendations given out there, a little lackadaisical on masks,” and encouraged people to continue to take precautions.

“I know it’s a sacrifice and certainly an inconvenience, but if we’re going to in fact get through this thing over the next year, we need to in fact sacrifice and tolerate some inconvenience,” he said. “If we do that, I think we’re going to be fine.”

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