ST. GEORGE — Wearing an orange tie to mark the imminent lowering of the state’s coronavirus risk level to orange, Gov. Gary Herbert said he was optimistic about how the state has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and where people in the state go from here.
“This is my new fashion statement. This symbolizes that we should be optimistic,” Herbert said during what he said would be his last daily coronavirus press conference for the time being. “Our attitude, our hope for the future should be positive. We can see the fruits of our labor.”
“It’s a red-letter day. No, it’s an orange-letter day.”
Herbert signed the official order late Wednesday that as the clock strikes midnight Friday morning, Utah will end the red risk level for the virus it has been in since March 27.
The red risk level included recommendations to avoid public gatherings of any kind that sparked the temporary closure of many businesses, including an order for restaurants to stop sit-down service.
Among the most immediate changes to the recommendations under the orange, or moderate, level, is people that are not high-risk can now gather in groups of 20 or less. Also, sit-down restaurant service, gyms and hotels can open their doors as long as they still maintain cleanliness and maintaining a 6-foot distance between patrons.
Those with too much atop their head might also be pleased that personal services like hair stylists can get back to their snipping as long as they and their customers wear masks that cover their nose and mouths.
Some areas of Southern Utah are going a little further. The city of St. George announced Thursday that it is reopening its pools and splash pads.
Herbert said initially the plan is to maintain the orange risk level for two weeks and review the next steps that may be taken at that point.
For those who are at high risk for coronavirus being fatal – including those 60 and over and those with high blood pressure, moderate to severe asthma, and serious heart conditions – little will really change. Those in high risk are recommended to maintain staying home unless necessary, limit gatherings of any kind and wear masks at all times in public settings.
At first, the governor’s new executive order, released late Wednesday, reads like musts, rather than recommendations.
“I, Gary R. Herbert, Governor of the State of Utah, hereby order … individuals and businesses in Utah shall comply with the orange (medium risk) provisions of the phased guidelines.”
Up until now, other than restaurants, the governor’s directives have been recommendations, rather than orders.
However, Brooke Scheffler, a spokeswoman for the governor, said unlike other states like California and New York, the governor is still maintaining his stance not to make his directives mandatory, statewide orders.
“They are still recommendations. And he asks that everyone comply with the new guidelines,” Scheffler told St. George News.
The complete guidelines for residents and businesses can be found at this link.
While he maintains optimism that a majority of Utahns will continue social distancing and taking precautions he said led to the move to reduce the alert level, Herbert cautioned that it is not time for a return to normal. And as easily as the state moves to a lower risk level, a substantial increase in cases and other signs people have become careless with social distancing could erase that progress and put the state right back on a red alert footing.
“We will monitor the data,” Herbert said. “We want to go from red to orange and not back to red. But if we do have to go back to red, we will.”
Current local and state totals
According to a study by the New York Times, Utah maintains a rate of one person dying of the virus for every 100,000 people, which is sixth in the country and tied for second-best among Western states.
However, another study published by the New York Times Thursday, using national, state and local health statistics, listed Utah as among 20 states and territories that it said has not flattened the curve because new cases are currently in a state of increasing.
That said, statistics from the Utah Department of Health show the state has maintained a 3- 5% daily rate of new cases for the last three weeks.
Since the first case in the state was reported on March 6, 4,672 people statewide have tested positive for the virus and 46 have died in two months, with 52% of the cases being in Salt Lake County. In comparison, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 28 people per month die of flu or pneumonia in Utah.
While the rate is comparable, medical experts say unlike the flu or pneumonia, there are still no treatments or vaccines for the COVID-19 virus. And in other areas of the country with a denser population, like in Clark County, Nevada – just two hours from St. George — 202 people have died of the virus since March.
In Southern Utah, which had its first positive test locally on March 21, 98 residents have tested positive for the virus and two have died, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. There were five additional cases on Thursday.
There are five counties in the state that have still had no cases of the coronavirus, and Beaver County is one of them. Herbert opened the possibility Thursday that some areas and counties in the state could move to an even lower risk level – yellow – before other areas of the state do, but he did not give a timeline of when that could be.
Expansion of testing, tracking
The virus itself doesn’t change based on the alert level issued by the state of Utah. But state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn told St. George News a recent expansion of testing and continued tracking of those who have the virus gives her confidence the state is ready to lower its risk level.
“A huge reason we’re able to move is our increased testing capacity,” Dunn said. “That and contract tracing makes us really confident.”
According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, some health officials have expressed concerns about the results coming from the testing sites run by Silicon Slopes’ TestUtah, which include a testing center at the Red Cliffs Mall. The report said the TestUtah centers have had half the positive rate of testing centers run by others in the state.
Herber attributed that difference to the wider scope and different types of testing used by TestUtah.
“TestUtah has done many more assessments. They’ve been a little more liberal,” Herbert said. “Our folks want to have testing available. We are all working to calibrate and get on the same page.”
TestUtah has wider criteria for those tested, including those who show no symptoms of the virus at all. Other testing sites in the state require that those tested exhibit one of the main symptoms of the virus including fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing or decreased sense of smell or taste. That is less than CDC guidelines nationally, which require two.
In addition, TestUtah is using a less-invasive, though newer, test with a swab in the mouth. This is opposed to traditional long nasal swab that goes up the entire nostril used by other test facilities in the state, including those run by Intermountain Healthcare on River Road in St. George and on Sage Drive in Cedar City.
Going back to work
Herbert said 80% of workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic were furloughed and may go right back to work as the economy slowly reopens.
He acknowledged for some, the temptation might be to remain on unemployment if the salary doesn’t match the benefits they will be getting.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see it may be easier to stay and make more on unemployment than go back to work,” Herbert said. “We’ll have to see what happens.”
Herbert added politics may come into play with a difference of opinion between the two parties. But the governor said both sides are aiming for the same goal.
“Democrats want to get money to the unemployed. Republicans want to get money to small businesses,” Herbert said. “They’re both trying to get to the same place.”
Hurricane DMV will open some services
Herbert also announced at his press conference that the Department of Motor Vehicles is partially reversing a decision the day before and will be opening the lobby of the Southern Utah DMV office in Hurricane Friday.
“The Hurricane office is going to be reopened tomorrow with some limited access,” Herbert said Thursday.
Services will still be limited and because of social distancing, only a certain number of people will be allowed in the office at a time.
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 April 30, 2020)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 98, with 68 recoveries.
- Washington County: 68 (3 new)
- Iron County: 24 (2 new)
- Garfield County: 3
- Kane County: 3
- Beaver County: 0
- Washington County: 1
- Iron County: 1
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