SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert declared a new state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic Sunday, issuing several restrictions in an effort to curb the ongoing spike in COVID cases. These include a statewide mask mandate, restricting social gatherings to household groups and a halt to extracurricular activities.
The increased restrictions come after Utah shattered its single-day record with 2,987 cases and 17 deaths Friday. As a result, hospitals have warned about overcrowding — prompting the governor to issue a state of emergency to suppress the surge of cases.
“To make a real difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and turning around the dire situation in our hospitals, we all need to do more,” Gov. Herbert said in a statement.
Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Birx and @CDCDirector about our situation. They provided helpful support and guidance on how we can improve our outcomes.
— Gov. Gary Herbert (@GovHerbert) November 5, 2020
Utah hospitals reported a new high in coronavirus-related hospitalizations Sunday, with 424 people currently hospitalized. In response, Gov. Herbert said he would issue the new state of emergency to “address hospital overcrowding and to protect intensive care unit capacity.”
These recommendations come after “a week of analysis and consideration,” as well as state conversations with Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the governor said.
“Now let me be clear,” Gov. Gary Herbert said. “What I have shared with you this evening is not a shutdown of our society or our economy. We are not closing any businesses.”
The governor said an economic shutdown wouldn’t be warranted to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but the new directive of wearing masks and social distancing is “crucial.” As a result, businesses and public spaces — such as restaurants, churches and gyms — will still be open amid the state of emergency.
The new restrictions begin Monday at 1 p.m. and will remain in effect until Nov. 23.
Statewide mask mandate
Under the order, Utah will enforce a statewide mask mandate required in all public places and when a six-foot distance is not possible.
Businesses must require employees to wear masks while promoting patrons to wear face coverings inside the establishment. Each business will be expected to post signage outlining the face mask requirement.
Any company that fails to do so will be subject to fines.
“Because scientists and medical experts overwhelmingly recommend masks as an effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, I am placing the entire state of Utah under a mask mandate until further notice,” the governor said in his announcement Sunday.
Although the state of emergency is set to expire Nov. 23, Gov. Herbert announced the face mask mandate will extend past this date into “the foreseeable future.”
“We cannot afford to debate this any longer,” the governor said. “Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom.”
Gov. Herbert compared the mask mandate to other common safety laws, such as traffic lights or seatbelts. Despite concerns that wearing masks impedes the ability to breathe, the governor pointed to health experts dispelling these claims.
Limit social gatherings to one household
The declaration will also limit social interactions for the next two weeks, permitting only those who live in the same household to gather together.
“This means many of us may have to cancel plans with extended family and friends,” Gov. Herbert said. “This is a sacrifice for all of us.”
This portion of the order will be lifted Nov. 23, just three days before Thanksgiving.
“It should be known that we will not tolerate organizers of public gatherings that do not exercise the required precautions of social distancing and mask-wearing,” the governor said.
State and local authorities will prosecute those who do not comply with the new restrictions, according to Gov. Herbert. Organizers who violate these directives will be subject to fines up to $10,000 for each occurrence.
Extracurricular activities on hold
All extracurricular activities will be put on hold, halting athletic and intramural events for the next two weeks. This does not include intercollegiate athletic games or practices, according to the governor, as those groups already adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols and guidelines.
“This is a two-week postponement that will enable us to immediately prioritize testing of student athletes involved in playoff and championship games,” Gov. Herbert said. “And to put in place a robust system of testing student-athletes involved in other winter sports and activities.”
This doesn’t apply to high school championship games or practices, as they already follow instructions for COVID-19 testing and limited crowd sizes. However, it does include club sports, city-sponsored sports and other club activities.
In addition, the governor recommends students to not gather in social groups outside of “regular school hours,” pointing to a surge in cases from youth ages 15-24.
Mandatory testing for students
Under the new order, Utah will roll out an accelerated testing program for asymptomatic individuals by focusing on college students and those who practice extracurricular activities. This will transition to “eventual workplace testing for people 35 and younger” as that age demographic is more likely to be asymptomatic.
“As leaders, we know testing is a critical piece of our response,” said governor-elect Spencer Cox. “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.”
If that doesn’t get our attention, maybe this thread will. Our ICU’s are full and our doctors and nurses are overwhelmed. With giant spikes happening all over the country, it will be harder for us to get help from neighboring states. 2/ https://t.co/FAAdB5r4PX
— Spencer Cox (@SpencerJCox) November 7, 2020
All students enrolled at public or private colleges will be required to get tested weekly for the coronavirus if they live on campus or attend at least one in-person class. The order recommends this requirement must begin “as soon as possible,” but no later than Jan. 1, 2021.
It’s unclear how long this requirement will be in place. However, it’s expected to carry through at least part of the spring semester.
The state announced it would activate increased National Guard resources to help with this process and increase contact tracing efforts.
The Utah Department of Health is also working to expand these efforts to high school teachers throughout the state, providing rapid asymptomatic testing.
Utah schools heading the surge in COVID cases
Health officials say this targeted testing should help control the surge, as most asymptomatic cases come from this demographic.
“For some time now, we have been able to test anyone with symptoms of COVID-19,” said Rich Saunders, UDOH executive director. “But we know asymptomatic spread is a significant factor in this pandemic and we have to test more than just those who feel sick. Luckily, as the science advances, these tests get less and less invasive.”