Governor continues mask mandate as Washington County hits COVID-19 death toll high

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

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he will be extending the statewide mask mandate order before it expires Monday but will not renew an order that limited social gatherings to those in one’s household.

Go. Gary Herbert appears as part of the monthly question and answer program on PBS Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah, on Nov. 19, 2020. | Photo courtesy of PBS Utah, St. George News

The move comes as Southern Utah had its deadliest day since the start of the pandemic, with four deaths caused by COVID-19 – all in Washington County.

During Thursday’s taping of PBS Utah’s “Governor’s Monthly News Conference” program, the governor also provided guidance from the state as far as the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. 

This Sunday will be two weeks since the governor used a statewide emergency alert sent to cell phones to inform residents about an emergency order, which included a statewide requirement to wear face coverings in all indoor public areas, as well as a restriction on social gatherings and a postponement of most scholastic sports. 

While state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn with the Utah Department of Health warned it might be a full two weeks before the effects of the order would be reflected in the number of new infections statewide and locally, the governor expressed frustration that not only has the situation locally and statewide not improved – its has gotten worse with the state and Southern Utah at its worst point in hospitalizations, deaths and the daily rate of new infections since the pandemic began in Utah in March.  

But Herbert said in Utahns’ defense, it’s tough all over.

The videoboard at Greater Zion Stadium in St. George, Utah, asks fans to wear a mask at the 2A state championship football game between Beaver and Duchesne on Nov. 14, 2020 | Photo by Rich Allen, St. George News

“I can tell you when you look around the country, none of it seems to be working,” Herbert said. The governor cited the total hands-off approach in places like North Dakota that has caused it to have one of the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita in the world and restrictive, lockdown approach in places like New York, that while keeping infections low are still seeing a high death rate. 

Herbert said he would reveal an augmented order on Monday that will actually see fewer restrictions on Utahns, indicating that one of the few things that will continue is the mask mandate. He said his plan will still reflect what he said is a balanced approach between the public health needs and those of business. 

And as of now, the governor’s approach will be fewer restrictions on where people can go and how many can gather rather than a requirement that masks be worn. 

“I think intuitively … people feel safer going to those places where in fact masks are being worn. And so what happens with the statewide mask mandate as there’s more mobility people are getting out and about means they shop more,” Herbert said. “It not only does not have a negative effect on the economy. It has a positive effect on the economy.”

There is still the question of how much teeth a mask mandate has. 

The local health department for Southern Utah, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, has said it does not have the manpower to enforce any mandate and would likely only deal with egregious incidents like recently when people were going maskless deliberately in a willful attempt to spread the virus. 

On Tuesday, both the local health department and St. George Police each released a separate statement saying not to contact them about any violations at businesses of the mask mandate but to fill out an online form with the Utah Labor Commission or speak with the management of the business.

A masks required sign outside Smith’s Market on Bluff Street in St. George, Utah, seen on Nov. 6, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Iron County Sherrif Ken Carpenter and members of the Iron County Commission have said they aren’t enforcing any kind of mask mandate there, with Carpenter saying he would be open to working with the governor if he were to meet with the Utah Sheriffs Association. 

In response to a question from St. George News, he said he would be willing to work with the sheriffs, but he’s just waiting for their call. 

“You know, I haven’t been invited. I’ve worked with the sheriffs a lot when I was a county commissioner. I have a great appreciation for the responsibility of law enforcement the policy and the laws are created by the legislative body,” Herbert said, reasserting that he has the constitutional authority with the Utah Department of Health to make public health orders. “We made sure we had legal direction every step of the way. We can debate, I guess, different policies, but I think there we’re to the point where there’s really no debate that sciences says to us that if you wear masks, you slow the spread, you minimize the chances of you getting sick and those around you getting sick. Those who disagree don’t like to hear the numbers and the science behind it.”

At the same time, Herbert acknowledges that as far as enforcement, there’s little more enforcement than self-control.  

“We would hope to people just do it because it’s in their own best interest and it’s in the best interest of those around them.”

Deadly day in Washington County

As the number of new infections keeps rising without seemingly any limit, there were four people who were reported Thursday to have died in Southern Utah of coronavirus – with all four in Washington County.

Chart shows the number of deaths in Southern Utah from the coronavirus since May 1 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department as of Nov. 19, 2020. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

That included a woman between 45- and 64-years-old that died at home without hospitalization. 

The deadly day culminates a deadly week in Southern Utah that has seen 14 people die in seven days – by far the most in a one-week span since the first death, in Iron County, in March and the first Washington County death on April 29

Since then, a total of 77 people have died of COVID-19  in the five-county area, including 64 in Washington County alone. 

And it is now at the point where COVID-19 is rising to the top among causes of deaths for Washington County residents. 

At this point, more than four times as many people in Washington County have died of COVID-19 since late April compared to the number of people killed in vehicle accidents since January. 

According to the Utah Department of Public Safety, there have been 17 people killed in auto accidents this year in Washington County.

Chart shows cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to Nov. 6, 2020, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The deaths in the last week have struck several age groups ranging from those 45 years of age to over 85. Both of those between 45-64 who died in Washington County were never hospitalized. 

Based on Utah Department of Health data, COVID-19 in seven months would place fourth compared to other diseases in 2019 for the number of those killed in Washington County behind heart disease (283), cancer (278) and Alzheimer’s (109). In comparison, influenza killed 29 Washington County residents in all of 2019. 

As far as all of Southern Utah, there have been 36 people killed in auto fatalities this year compared to the 77 who have died of COVID-19 in the five-county area since March. 

But like the rising number of coronavirus infections nationwide, the entire country has been seeing its deadliest week in the pandemic.  

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 Nov. 19, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 8,307 (213.3 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Nov. 14)

  • Washington County: 6,558 (162.4 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 1,159 (34.6 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 111 (3.7 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 144 (6.9 per day, rising)
  • Beaver County: 113 (6.0 per day, rising)

Deaths: 77 (2 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 64 (9 new since last report: hospitalized male 65-84, hospitalized male over 85, hospitalized female over 85, female 45-64 at home, long-term care male 65-64, hospitalized female over 85, long-term care male 45-64, hospitalized female 65-84.)
  • Iron County: 4 
  • Garfield County: 6 (1 new: Hospitalized male over 85)
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2 (1 new: female over 85 at home.) 

Hospitalized: 42 (rising)

Active cases: 2,800

Recovered: 6,382

Current Utah seven-day average: 3,163 (rising)

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

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