Governor announces coronavirus alert level moving to yellow

Simulated microscopic view of the viral cell Covid-19 on a yellow background. | Photo by Julia Garan/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The state is reducing its recommended restriction level to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic to the low-risk yellow level for many parts of the state, including Southern Utah, starting Saturday.

In this April file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, left, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, bump elbows after a press conference with legislative, community and business leaders at the Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, April 17, 2020 | Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News via The Associated Press, St. George News

Gov. Gary Herbert made the announcement during a press conference Thursday morning. 

Wearing a yellow-gold tie in a similar fashion to the orange tie he wore on April 30 when announcing the move from the red to orange – or moderate risk – level, Herbert praised the efforts Utahns have made up until now, while expressing caution that moving to yellow doesn’t mean it is a total return to business as usual.

“Despite this change, we still need to be cautious. This is about personal responsibility. This is not an on-off switch. We are moving the dial incrementally,” Herbert said. “This is a chance for us to move forward. The proof will be in how we act. Will you wear a mask when you go grocery shopping? Will you practice social distancing?”  

The change will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. 

Some areas of the state will remain at the orange level of recommended precautions, including Grand, Summit, Wasatch, Salt Lake and West Valley City counties.

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News. | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News | Click to enlarge

However, the counties in Southern Utah will be moving into yellow, despite the sharp increase in cases over the last 14 days in Washington County and St. George specifically.

In Washington County, the amount of tests coming back positive has doubled and overall cases have gone up 36.4% in a week, the highest increase in the state.

However, local officials –  including Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist, St. George Mayor Jon Pike and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department – have lobbied the governor over the last two weeks to move the area to the lower risk category.    

Retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, tapped by Herbert to run the daily operations of the Utah Department of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic, cited the concerns of local officials as a deciding factor toward moving Southern Utah to yellow. 

“We looked at data points in consultation with local health officers. They’re the boots on the ground,” Burton said during the press conference. “All these decisions are data-driven, but we also weigh in on the decision of local health and elected officials. We strive to be as objective as we can be. … There is subjectivity involved, but we try to keep subjectivity to a minimum.”

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, applauded the move but also said the change doesn’t mean people in Southern Utah can go back to the way things were before the first case of the virus was reported on in Southern Utah on March 21. There have been 187 total cases in Southern Utah since then – 152 in Washington County alone – and three deaths.

“This doesn’t mean going back to normal. This opening things up a little more while social distancing,” Heaton said, adding nothing is changing at all for high-risk individuals. “High-risk individuals should consider themselves in phase red. The goal is to keep them protected while the majority of the rest of us can go back to work.”

Dr. Jarid Gray, a doctor at Cedar City Hospital who recently traveled to the New York City area to aid COVID-19 patients there, said Southern Utah has done what it can to reopen business again, but shouldn’t hesitate to baton down the hatches again if there is a new surge.

“We are as ready as we’re going to be and I think it’s OK as long as we can tighten back down if there is a significant surge in cases,” Gray said.

Sign outside the Applebee’s restaurant on River Road, St. George, Utah, May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Heaton said while there is not too much difference between the orange and yellow phases, it could a much longer time before the state is ready to move into a green phase, where the need for masks and social distancing is eliminated. He also said there is still the possibility that if there is a major surge in hospitalizations and cases that there also exist the possibility of the area having to go back to the more restrictive orange level.

The most immediate change under yellow will be that all businesses are permitted to open as long as they maintain 6 feet of distance between employees and patrons and have less than 51 people in a room. 

This change will be especially critical for restaurants, as St. George Mayor Jon Pike cited the inability for restaurants to profitably open up with the 20-people-or-less rules of the orange level as a big reason to move to the lower risk level.

Other immediate changes include the following:

  • All businesses, including government offices, can open if they practice social distancing and wear masks when social distancing isn’t feasible.
  • The moratorium on evictions for renters expires on Friday.
  • Stay-at-home measures only need to be practiced by high-risk individuals, those around them and those who have symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Travel within the state is no longer discouraged.
  • Team sports can resume.
  • Public pools can reopen if social distancing is practiced.
  • Schools will remain closed.

The complete guidelines for businesses and the public can be found at this link.

Like Heaton, Herbert said that high-risk individuals – including those over 60 or with underlying health conditions – should remain on a red-level of risk recommendations for the time beginning, including staying at home and limiting interactions with the public as much as possible. 

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News. Click to enlarge. | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News

Dr. Michael Good, CEO of the University of Utah Health System, called the coronavirus a “bully” during the press conference.

“It finds and attacks at-risk individuals … older members of our community. Coronavirus finds and attacks high-risk individuals.”

Good said 92% of those who have had the coronavirus in Utah have not required hospitalization. He also pointed out 70% of those who have died of the virus in Utah were aged 65 or older. 

In fact, of those who have died of the virus, 96% had one of the high-risk factors. For that reason, as the state opens up, there is also a parallel effort to make sure those in the high-risk groups remain on a stay-at-home footing while those around those individuals do what they can to protect them.  

“High-risk individuals are those who likely need a hospital bed if they develop the virus,” Good said, adding families thinking it’s a good time for their kids to see their grandparents should reconsider. “If they stay in their home and we keep them away from their kids, they too can do well. But  if we mix those two together. You have huge outbreaks and many people who have to go to the hospital.” 

The Utah Department of Health said that 77.3% of those who have died have had one of the following conditions:

  • Over the age of 65.
  • Asthma.
  • Other respiratory conditions.
  • Current or former smokers.
  • Heart or cardiovascular condition.
  • Weakened immune systems including those with cancer and HIV.
  • Kidney conditions including undergoing dialysis.
  • Liver conditions.
A sign describing face coverings required for those entering outside Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

There is still some concern that reducing the recommended guidelines will result in a false sense of security by the public.

St. George attorney Jinks Dabney, who serves on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s Utah Advisory Committee, said he is concerned that people will take the yellow status as if the virus has disappeared, forgoing social distancing and masks. 

“As soon as it went orange, everyone jumped in their cars as if we’re in green and there’s no warning at all. Like going from a red light right to a green light,” Dabney said. “Everybody down here thinks we’re on green already, and that there’s no need for any restrictions. I hope we don’t have a lot of people that regret it, but we’re not going to know for a couple more weeks.”

Dabney said recommendations to practice stay-at-home measures and social distancing are not violations of civil rights. “That’s a red herring. This isn’t a question of my civil rights. You’re going to end up requiring other people to go to the hospital. You’re exposing a bunch of people. You don’t have that right,” Dabney said. “You have the right to swing your arms but that stops a half an inch before my nose starts. This is a public health issue.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 14, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 187 (7 new), with 116 recoveries (9 new).

  • Washington County: 152 (7 new)
  • Iron County: 29 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 3

  • Washington County: 2 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 5 (1 new)

Tested: 8,651 (234 new tests)

Updated May 15, 8:30 p.m. with additional information.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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