Box Elder County officials have formally asked the state for permission to remove restrictions on restaurants, mass gatherings, and other precautions designed to prevent or limit the spread of the coronavirus.
At its meeting last Wednesday, the Box Elder County Commission voted unanimously to petition Gov. Gary Herbert to allow the county to join 10 others in Utah in moving to the “green” phase of the state’s approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as the “new normal” phase under the Utah Leads Together plan.
Going to “green” would mean no more limits on the number of people who can congregate in a given location, and all businesses would be allowed to operate as usual. Instead of having to comply with regulations, people in “green” areas are encouraged to follow a set of safety guidelines that include social distancing of at least six feet, frequent hand washing, and the wearing of face coverings when appropriate distancing isn’t possible. The plan has more stringent recommendations in place for individuals considered to be at high risk based on age or health status.
Ten other counties in rural areas of southern and central Utah have already been granted “green” status, and local officials say Box Elder County largely fits that profile.
“It’s pretty easy to justify,” Commissioner Jeff Scott said. “Our numbers (of COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations) are relatively low. Our positive test rates are still coming back at or below state average, and we’re in a more rural area.”
Scott said the commission has heard from numerous businesses, residents and municipal leaders in the county who feel that moving to the “green” phase is the prudent thing to do at this point.
In petitioning the state for a change in status, county leaders compose a letter requesting the change and send it to the local health department, which can add its own input before forwarding it to the governor’s office for consideration.
Health experts are still recommending a cautious approach. In a conference call on Friday, Utah State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn, Herbert’s top adviser on infectious diseases, said it’s true that rural areas in the state tend to be at lower risk for mass spread of the virus.
“It’s easier to social distance in these rural areas, so we know there’s less spread,” Dunn said.
However, she said the number of infections is still growing in the Bear River Health District in proportion to the number of tests being done.
“We’re not finding increasing cases because we’re doing more testing,” she said. “We’ve been doing testing for a while there, and we’re just finding more cases.”
Because it is located near population centers along the Wasatch Front, she said it remains important for people in Box Elder County to continue taking personal precautions to help prevent the spread of the virus, and to keep an eye on the numbers locally regardless of which phase the county is in.
“We also look at surrounding communities because, as we know, the virus doesn’t stop at the borders of communities,” she said.
Along with the state as a whole, the number of COVID-19 cases in Box Elder County has been trending upward in recent days and weeks. Officials say much of that increase is tied to a recent outbreak at a meat processing facility in Cache County, but the spike related to that event has leveled off somewhat after the number of cases in Cache topped 1,000 last week.
Box Elder County surpassed 100 cases last weekend, according to the Bear River Health Department, but Scott said the numbers remain low enough that it’s time to get rid of some restrictions.
“If you want to stay home and don’t feel comfortable going out, stay home,” he said. “But if others want to get back to more normal, let’s do it.”
Local leaders should still encourage residents to be smart and take precautions, he said.
“We don’t want (Box Elder County) to turn into a super-spread zone,” he said.