ST. GEORGE — Washington County and St. George city leaders have resubmitted a request to reduce the coronavirus alert in Southern Utah from moderate orange to the low-risk yellow level to the governor.
Over the weekend, retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, who was tapped by Gov. Gary Herbert to run the daily operations of the Utah Department of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic, rejected a previous request by the same parties to reduce the alert level.
Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist told St. George News that he and St. George Mayor Jon Pike submitted a new letter to Burton Wednesday morning asking for Southern Utah to move to the yellow risk level by this Friday.
The move comes as Washington County has seen new cases of coronavirus rise by 25% in the last three days.
In a press conference Wednesday, Burton said he is listening to the concerns of Southern Utah leaders but has to raise those concerns against the health and safety of its citizens.
“We hear you in St. George. We just need to strike a balance between health and business and we can’t move too quickly,” said Burton, formerly the leader of the Utah National Guard.
Burton added that he has friends who are suffering financially during the pandemic and sympathizes with those concerns.
“I have a lot of friends who are suffering with their businesses. But we also don’t want to rush too quickly,” Burton told St. George News. “The balance is between public health and those concerns. We’re striving to strike that balance.”
One of Burton’s friends is St. George City Councilman Bryan Smethurst, who is nevertheless in disagreement with his friend over the alert level in Southern Utah. Smethurst, who served 36 years in the National Guard, had Burton as his commanding officer for 20 of them.
“He and I go way back,” Smethurst said.
Now a councilman and the leader of the governor’s coronavirus task force, the two spent a great deal of time on the phone together Wednesday morning. Smethurst said he is more than convinced that Burton will listen to the concerns of Southern Utah leaders, though ultimately Burton and the governor are the ones who will need to make the decision.
“I trust him with my life. I would go into battle with him,” Smethurst said of Burton. “I would like to go to yellow, and he’s willing to listen to us, but ultimately the decision will be his and we’ll follow that whether we agree with it or not.”
On Wednesday, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported seven more positive tests of the COVID-19 virus – the second-highest total in one day since the first positive test in Southern Utah on March 21. Washington County has seen a sharp increase in cases in the last three days, with 19 of the county’s 95 cases being reported in the last three days for a 25% increase. Two of the three dead in Southern Utah have been in Washington County.
With the virus’ 14-day gestation period, the increase in cases is more of a reflection of the week of April 20 than the change in recommended restrictions over the weekend. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has also been attributing the rise to the increase in testing. There have been 1,118 new tests reported in Southern Utah in the last three days – an 18% increase.
Whether it’s more testing or a sign the problem is worse than people thought, the idea of opening up even more of Southern Utah while cases are rising may have the appearance of making the problem worse.
However, Pike said the county and St. George’s request doesn’t discount the problem, it just takes a different approach toward combating it.
“We hope to be able to target those who are high-risk as opposed to the broad-based, everything closed approach. We have to emphasize going forward, while we’ve all done our best to work within the restrictions and guidelines, we really need to change the approach and have a targeted approach going forward,” said Pike, who added his own daughter was tested for the virus Tuesday. “I doubt she has it. Probably a cold.”
Pike said he has invited Burton to attend the St. George City Council meeting via Zoom and have him present his view and to move state, county and city on the same page. Pike added that the letter was actually resubmitted at Burton’s suggestion, as the previous letter was sent before the state moved into orange.
Pike also said Dr. David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department and the local epidemiologist, is in agreement with a more targeted approach to combating the coronavirus, rather than closing everything down.
However, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, Dr. Angela Dunn, said Wednesday she would like to see cases dropping before there is a move to a yellow phase.
“We ideally would like to see that positive rate drop,” Dunn said, who added that an advantage of the “stay safe, stay home” approach of the last two months is there is plenty of space in the hospitals to accommodate an increase in cases. “We’re very fortunate we haven’t seen a strain on our health care system, and that’s a leading indicator we’re looking at.”
Utah moved statewide from the red high-risk level to orange April 30. The state’s plan does give the option for some areas to move to a lower risk level while other areas remain on a higher alert. Pike said the state needs to take into account the weather and population differences between the Salt Lake City and Southern Utah areas.
“Our reality down here is, we’re in summer. We don’t know much about the virus, but it seems to be behaving like a seasonal flu,” Pike said, adding a higher rate of cases is expected as more people are tested. “We will see higher numbers of new cases. We want to know all that. We also hope that if people do get sick, they aren’t immune-compromised. This is a society where we have other illnesses and we can’t protect everyone from everything. If things get much worse more quickly, maybe we have to pull back.”
A move to yellow alert would mean all businesses could reopen as long as they maintain a 6-feet distance between patrons and employees. That includes movie and musical theaters and other spectator events as long as seats are closed off to maintain social distancing.
The number of people who could gather in a group would be enlarged to 50 people or less. This would limit the number of people who could be at spectator events but would allow restaurants to have more patrons inside.
Because of that, Pike said businesses can’t wait even a week to move to a lower risk level.
“A week or 10 days isn’t long, but it’s an eternity for business,” Pike said, adding he has been told by restaurants they’re still keeping their doors closed because having only less than 20 patrons at a time isn’t very profitable.“Going from 20 to 50 people in the restaurant is a big deal. I hope they will take a closer look.”
A move to yellow alert would mean all businesses can reopen as long as they maintain a 6-feet distance between patrons and employees. That includes movie and musical theaters and other spectator events as long as seats are closed off to maintain social distancing.
Schools would also be recommended to reopen, albeit while maintaining social distancing and also taking into account that the school years for most levels of education locally have ended or will be ending shortly.
What wouldn’t change is the public would be recommended to maintain a 6-feet distance apart and wear masks when that distancing is not possible. Personal touching like handshakes and hugging would remain taboo.
Most of all, those over the age of 60 and those with high-risk health conditions – such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions and lung conditions – would continue to take extreme measures like staying home and avoiding interactions unless absolutely necessary. The complete guidelines can be found at this link.
Smethurst said he has been getting letters from senior citizens who sit in the high-risk group who would rather brave the world of coronavirus than stay mostly confined to home much longer.
“I had a letter from someone who was 89 years old saying, ‘I don’t have many days left. I don’t want to spend those days at home,” he said. “Their mental status is just as important as dealing with COVID.”
But Smethurst knows what it may look like, evoking images of the mayor and council in the movie “Jaws,” opening up for the Fourth of July when the shark is still out there.
“It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Smethurst said. “We’re just trying to find the best dam.”
St. George News Reporter Mori Kessler contributed to this story.
COVID-19 information resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 6, 2020)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 128, with 86 recoveries.
- Washington County: 95 (6 new)
- Iron County: 27 (1 new)
- Garfield County: 3
- Kane County: 3
- Beaver County: 0
- Washington County: 2
- Iron County: 1
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