Governor rejects statewide COVID-19 mask mandate, sets benchmarks to move to green

ST. GEORGE — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert responded to a recent upsurge in coronavirus infections in Utah by using what he calls a “scalpel approach” – moving just the cities of Provo and Orem to orange, while rejecting a statewide mask mandate. 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the Capitol rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing Sept. 22, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

At the same time, the governor, along with the Utah Department of Health, set hard number guidelines as to when a locality would be able to move to a lower color risk status. 

The move of Provo and Orem from yellow to orange – rather than Utah County as a whole or anywhere else in the state, is seen by Herbert as a more direct approach to dealing with the pandemic, since both cities have universities where increased cases have been reported.

“We’ve tried to have a scalpal approach as opposed to a shotgun approach,” Herbert said during a press conference Tuesday at the State Capitol. “If we think in terms of a forest fire, we stop it now, that will keep it from spreading further. That’s the attempt here.”

The current spike that has seen the daily average of new infections in the state double in one week has been mainly based in Utah County, which has made more than 45% or the state’s new cases in that time. And of the cases in Utah County, the Utah Department of Health said 51% have come just from Provo and Orem. 

It is the first time since the “Utah Leads Together” color risk-level model was adopted in March that a locality has had to move to a more restrictive risk level. By moving to orange, it is recommended that only gatherings of 20 or less should take place and only up to 20 people – including employees – should be inside a business or restaurant at a given time. 

Dr. David Blodgett discusses the school reopening plan with the Washington County School District Board of Education, St. George, Utah, Aug. 31, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“The impact to business for not controlling the virus is far more than the temporary setback with more restrictions,” Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders said. 

Schools are allowed to remain open, and an exemption has been made for team sports, allowing BYU to continue its football games; however, previous plans to allow spectators at the Cougars’ home opener this Saturday have been eliminated. 

On Thursday, Herbert said every option was on the table to deal with the rising numbers of infections in the state. But in the end, he rejected a statewide mask mandate Tuesday, preferring to leave it to local jurisdictions. 

“A statewide mandate doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because the one-size-fits-all works for the few but not for the many. … It would be overkill to mandate mask-wearing statewide,” Herbert said. “We want to emphasize personal responsibility at this time, and we’re leaving mask mandates to local officials and local health departments.”

Herbert went on to say that it wasn’t about mandates but rather “communities coming together.”

“I expect the locals to do their part. We all have a shared responsibility if we’re going to be victorious over this pandemic. This virus is real.”

Dr. David Blodgett, the head of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, has previously expressed discomfort about many government mandates and has especially been disapproving of business restrictions, co-signing recent efforts to move Washington and Iron Counties from yellow to green status.

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said Blodgett’s approach has been moderate from the beginning.   

“From day one, Dr. Blodgett has taken a moderate tone of not being laissez faire but not lock everything down,” Heaton said. “There are other long-term health consequences if you lock down too long. It has to be a balance.”

Goals set to move green

Saunders and Herbert announced Tuesday a change to how the state will approve localities moving from yellow to green going forward, as they will now need to meet certain hard numbers to move to green – or elevate back into orange. 

Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 22, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

Adjustments in the risk level will be based on three factors: case trends, hospital utilization and the percent of coronavirus tests that come back positive. 

“We’re taking a rigorous review of data, and looking at all the tools the governor has, we concluded that an immediate change needed to be made,” Saunders said. “Given what we’ve learned, we found it necessary to target specific areas.”

Herbert said the exact indicators will be released in the coming days. However, St. George News has obtained at least a partial list of the hard numbers needed for local counties to go green or be moved back to orange. 

The one factor that may stand in the way of at least Washington County moving green is the percent positivity rate. 

A locality will need to have a seven-day average percent positivity rate below 5%.

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has not released a new positivity report since Sept. 15, but it was 12% at that time, and a large majority of those positive tests came from Washington County.

When asked by St. George News, Heaton said Southern Utah has averaged 7.4% in the last three weeks. 

On the other end, a seven-day average above 20% would move the area from yellow to orange. While that has been the case for Orem and Provo, Southern Utah has not been approaching that threshold.

As far as new infections, an area will see restrictions raised from yellow to orange when the 14-day rolling average exceeds 35 new daily infections per 100,000 population. 

Residents drop off homemade masks at the 400 East Campus of Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on May 30, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Based on that, there is likely no danger of either Washington or Iron counties moving to orange in the near future. Using Southwest Utah Public Health Department figures, St. George News estimates the 14-day average per 100,000 in Washington County (based on the U.S. Census population of 177,556) is 9.7. For Iron County (based on the U.S. Census population of 54, 839), the 14-day average is 5.1.

In the last week, Washington County has accounted for a large share of the increases in infection rate in the southern portion of the state. On Tuesday, all 20 new infections in Southern Utah came from Washington County. 

Kane, Beaver and Garfield counties have remained green since June. On Monday, Garfield County reported its first new infection since Aug. 2.

As for hospitalizations, the state will go by statewide numbers going forward rather than individual count, with Saunders emphasizing the need for hospital capacity overall in the state.

With that in mind, the state said it will tighten restrictions from yellow to orange if statewide intensive care unit and non-ICU utilization are above 68% or are projected to both go above 68% within 21 days.

Currently, the state ICU occupancy is 61.9% while the overall occupancy is 45.6%. Locally, the number of residents hospitalized with COVID-19 has doubled in the last week to 10.

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Sept. 22, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 4,048 (24.0 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 3,166 (19.6 per day, steady)
  • Iron County: 723 (3.6 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 75 (0.3 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 47 (0.1 per day, rising) 
  • Beaver County: 37 (0.4 per day, rising) 

Deaths: 30 (0.1 per day, steady)

  • Washington County: 25 
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 10 (rising)

Recovered: 3,633

Current Utah seven-day average: 857 (rising)

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

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