Masks made mandatory in 3 local counties; governor ditches colors for COVID-19 restrictions

Photo illustration. | Photo by JJ Gouin, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert has issued an emergency declaration making the wearing of face coverings mandatory and restricting indoor social gatherings to 10 or less in Washington, Iron and Garfield counties.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

The two-week order, being called a “circuit-breaker,” is effective Thursday and is in response to the spike in coronavirus cases that has been ongoing over the past two weeks that has left 11 dead in Southern Utah over that span.

Potentially, if a county reduces its case rate and positive test percentage in the next two weeks, it could see its mask mandate lifted.

The governor has also replaced the color-coded coronavirus risk level system that had been in place since April 17. In its place will be a more data-driven “COVID-19 Transmission Index” that will divide counties into high, moderate and low transmission areas.

Schools and religious institutions are exempt from the social gathering restriction, as are indoor gatherings where everyone is wearing masks. This effectively makes masks required in all restaurants that have 10 or more people inside.

“I, like you, am tired of 2020. I’m tired of social distancing. … But I’m especially tired for those who have lost loved ones,” Herbert said. “Utah is now facing its most dire episode yet in this epidemic, and frankly, it doesn’t matter how tired we are. We have one of the worst outbreaks in the country, and that is unacceptable.”

Medical personnel administer COVID-19 tests at the Intermountain drive-through coronavirus testing site at the 400 East Campus of Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on Sept. 24, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The governor said he made the decision after consulting with health and legislative leaders.

Utah is one of the last states to issue a large-scale mask mandate. Officials point to other states and nations that have seen success with mask mandates. One example is the neighboring state of Arizona that has seen its coronavirus infection rate go down by 75% since instituting a statewide mask mandate on July 23, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The Grand Canyon State had been one of the top three states in the nation for transmission for the virus but now has half the daily infections of Utah.

“I know that masks are controversial. … Some people want to make it a political issue,” Rich Saunders, interim director of the Utah Department of Health, said. “If you take the politics out, masks just work.”

Southern Utah is closing in on its 5,000th person to be infected with the virus since March, with 908 people presently infected with the virus in the five counties, according to the Utah Department of Health. On Tuesday, St. George was second in the state for new coronavirus cases among Utah cities with 80,000 people or less according to Utah Department of Health data.

The metrics that will determine where a county will place in the COVID-19 Transmission Index provided by the Utah Department of Health on Oct. 13, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

For the first time since the pandemic began, Southern Utah is averaging at least one death per day, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. There were no deaths locally Tuesday after there were three new fatalities reported Monday, including the first coronavirus death in Garfield County since July.

Despite rumors on social media that all fatalities ranging from car accidents to “old age” are being reported as COVID-19-related, by law, a death is listed as having been coronavirus-related only if the patient would not have died if they did not have the virus according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the state level, where a month ago the seven-day daily average of new infections was less than 400 , it is now 1,182 per day.

Map shows the current level of each county in Utah according to the COVID-19 Transmission Index provided by the Utah Department of Health as of Oct. 13, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The public health emergency order, which will replace the governor’s state of emergency order on Thursday, is different from the previous red-orange-yellow-green risk system in that it is purely data-driven. It won’t be a case anymore of a county needing to request the governor for a “move to green” as much as it will be where the county is in regard to the infection rate and the percent of local coronavirus tests that come back presently.

“You may have become numb to the case counts and the warnings. But this is a time for us to assess what has been working and what has not and make adjustments we need to make in order to win this,” Herbert said. “If we don’t do anything, Utah will continue to be one of the top hot spots in the world, and we don’t want that. We have stemmed the tide before, and we can do it again.”

Counties will be placed in a “high,” “moderate” or “low” category each Thursday based on the percentage of positive tests and the 14-day case rate per 100,000 people. A county can move up a level on a weekly basis and would need to have two weeks of lower transmission rates and positive tests to move down a level.

After the initial two-week “circuit-breaker” order, mask mandates will only be in place for counties in the high category.

Initially, Garfield County is the one local county being placed in the high category, while Washington and Iron counties are considered at the moderate level. Beaver and Kane counties will be in the low level. Each level will have the following restrictions:

  • High transmission level: Masks are required in all indoor settings. Social gatherings can have no more than 10 people.
  • Moderate transmission level: Masks are recommended in all indoor settings unless required locally. Social gatherings can have no more than 25 people unless everyone wears a mask.
  • Low transmission level: Masks are recommended in all indoor settings unless required locally. Social gatherings can have no more than 50 people unless everyone wears a mask

However, regardless of the transmission level, both high and moderate levels will be under a mask requirement and social gatherings must be at 10 or below over the next two weeks.

As far as enforcement, both Herbert and Saunders said they don’t expect that to be the place of local police departments. It will more likely take the form of enforcement of local health departments similar to how restaurants with food preparation violations or construction sites not in compliance with local ordinances are dealt with now.

“We’re referring to this as a circuit breaker. The circuit needs to be broken,” Saunders said, adding that counties that work to bring their transmission rates below the high level in the next two weeks may see no mask mandate at that point. “If we work together, we have all the hope in the world that we will be successful in this.”

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 Oct. 13, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 4,682 (56.1 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 3,676 (46.7 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 815 (4.1 per day, dropping)
  • Kane County: 87 (0.4 per day, dropping)
  • Garfield County: 59 (3.1 per day, rising) 
  • Beaver County: 46 (1.6 per day, rising) 

Deaths: 45 (1.0 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 38 (4 new since last report: female hospitalized between 65-84, female hospitalized between 65-84, male long-term facility resident between 65-84, male long-term facility resident between 65-84)
  • Iron County: 3 
  • Garfield County: 3 (1 new, female hospitalized between 45-65)
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 12 (dropping)

Recovered: 4,121

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,182 (rising)

Southern Utah counties in high transmission level (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less): Garfield (18.1% positive tests, 472.4 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in moderate transmission level (masks recommended, gatherings to 25 or less): Washington (12.6% positive tests, 327.9 per 100,000 case rate), Iron (8.3% positive tests, 153.5 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in low transmission level (masks recommended, gatherings to 50 or less): Beaver (7.1% positive tests, 197.6 per 100,000 case rate), Kane (6.5% positive tests, 90.8 per 100,000 case rate)

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

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