Governor says no change from yellow for next two weeks, makes masks mandatory in state facilities

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 — Gov. Gary Herbert announced in a Wednesday afternoon press conference that there will be no further downgrades in the state’s coronavirus color risk level for any part of the state for the next two weeks, leaving Washington and Iron counties in yellow status.

Updated 10:30 p.m. Masks mandated in Mesquite starting Friday.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 24, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

The governor also left open the possibility of a move back to orange statewide if people don’t do enough in the next 14 days to bring the growing rate of coronavirus in the state down.

In light of increases in cases, we will not be considering any application for relaxation for the next two weeks,” Herbert said. “Everybody is working in good faith. We need to unify our efforts. We as Utahns need to take responsibility and get on top of it so we can keep the economy open. We can turn it around just like we did at the beginning. I think the people of Utah will respond. I trust the people of Utah.”

Herbert especially placed emphasis on wearing masks, making face coverings mandatory in all state-run facilities, including higher-education buildings, and indicated he will grant a move sought by Salt Lake County to make masks mandatory there. He also augmented current guidance in the state on masks, asking not only that people continue to maintain a social distance of 6 feet and wear masks when that is not the case outdoors, but always wear masks in indoor settings like workplaces, shopping and indoor gatherings.

He stopped short of making masks mandatory statewide, saying he will leave it to local jurisdictions to request it, as was the case with Salt Lake County.

Across the border, masks will be required to be worn in public places in Mesquite as of Friday after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a statewide masks order late Wednesday.

Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson shares what projects of note the county is working on in 2020, St. George. Utah, Jan. 13, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Herbert addressed comments made by Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson last week that he would never wear a mask and is against any color-level restrictions.

“I don’t think that’s a defensible position, especially when you hear from our health experts, if you love your neighbor,” Herbert said of Iverson, who is also running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Greg Hughes. “People are held accountable. But he is an elected official and the people there can determine if they support that. If the people of Washington County want to support that ‘We never want to wear a mask’ they can re-elect him to office. If not, they’ll replace him. That’s the process we have.”

Iverson told St. George News in a statement Wednesday that he stands by his comments.

“I’ll say it simply — constitutionally protected liberties apply every day, especially during a crisis,” Iverson said. “We are on the side of freedom. Good information drives good decisions. We trust the people of Utah to make good decisions.”

Herbert said that ultimately, he wants local jurisdictions to determine if masks should be made mandatory.

Chart shows the rise in cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to June 24, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

“I’m a local control person,” Herbert said, pointing to how leaders in Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City requested making masks mandatory in their area, which Herbert said he is granting.  

Herbert said the pandemic has hit his own office, as for the first time a member of the governor’s staff has tested positive for the virus. Herbert said he and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox was not exposed to the undisclosed staff member, but that all staff members who were are being isolated and tested.   

The move by the governor comes as the rate of infection continues to be rising in Southern Utah and across the state. There were 49 new cases in Southern Utah Wednesday, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, while the state’s health department reported 484 more cases Wednesday.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 24, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

For the first time, health officials revealed the effect recent Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests had on the increasing case rate, and, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, they had little to no effect at all.

“The protests happened about three weeks ago, and we’ve only identified a few individuals where it was the case,” said Dunn, adding that the increasing numbers are mainly from person-to-person contact where there is a lack of social distancing or masks not being worn. “We don’t think the protests have contributed to the outbreak.”

The governor’s move will not change the color status granted to the more rural areas of Southern Utah last week, which will remain green. However, even in those rural areas, cases have been rising. That includes nearly a tripling of the cases in Garfield County over the weekend, and, in one day Wednesday, a doubling of the cases in Beaver County.

The governor said a move back to orange statewide is on the table if, he said, enough Utahns don’t take personal responsibility. 

We can dial it back,” Herbert said. “We hope that doesn’t happen, but the next two weeks and people’s behavior will determine that. This is a call to arms. This is a call to action.”

Hospitals say they’re weeks from being full 

Herbert said he spoke Wednesday morning with Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, which is the parent company of Dixie Regional Medical Center, Cedar City Hospital and Garfield Memorial Hospital.  

Dixie Regional Medical Center seen on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“We spoke about the concern they have of an overwhelmed health care system,” Herbert said. 

On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday as part of the #maskuputah campaign, officials with Intermountain said that if nothing changes and current rates continue, hospitals like Dixie Regional are weeks from having a “no vacancy” sign.

“Based on our growth, in four to six weeks, we will reach capacity,” Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive of Intermountain Healthcare, said. “We’re prepared but we must take these steps as citizens so we don’t have to.”

Briesacher echoed the governor that the next two weeks may be a make-or-break moment for Southern Utah and the rest of the state. 

“We’re at this really important moment in time. We had a tremendous response at the beginning, and we were setting the bar for the nation. We then were able to open up,” Briesacher said. “In order to sustain this, we have to take the steps we’ve talked about. This is for caring about each other and saying I’m doing this for you.”

During the governor’s press conference, Dunn downplayed a memo that was acquired by several media sources saying the state is nearing the point where a complete shutdown may be in order. 

“The purpose of that document was to inform leadership discussions. It was intended as a starting point for discussion. My intention was not to say we should shut down. It was to give guidance,” Dunn said. “We should be proud that leadership is able to listen to all of these opinions and able to strike the right balance.”

The “Stay Safe to Stay Open” signage designed for businesses that pledge to adhere to state coronavirus guidelines. | Photo courtesy, St. George News

Herbert said his goal is still to strike a balance between advice he gets from health officials and those of commerce. He gave praise to the “Stay Safe to Stay Open” campaign by several Chambers of Commerce, including St. George, for businesses to take pledges to practice state coronavirus guidelines including social distancing and wearing masks. 

“We have a balanced approach. It’s not one versus the other. It’s a combination to protect lives and livelihoods,” Herbert said. “We mourn lives lost and we also mourn the loss of jobs.” 

But even if the possibility of their hospitals reaching capacity isn’t a concern for Utahns, their ability to freely travel to other states may be impeded. 

On Wednesday, the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut released a joint announcement where those traveling to those three states from Utah and eight other states will be under a mandatory 14-day quarantine because of large rises in coronavirus rates in those states. In addition, the European Union is considering a ban against any American traveling to its countries because of what it says is an out of control pandemic in the United States. 

Herbert defended Utah’s efforts, including a mortality rate that is still the fourth-lowest in the nation. However, he also said the moves are another wake-up call to Utahns. 

“I will compare our infection rates with New York any time, but we also can’t put our head in the sand about increasing rates,” Herbert said of the travel quarantine for Utahns. “It’s just an indication of concern, and we share that concern.” 

Making the case for masks

Like the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” guidance in March and May, the governor is hoping people will do more to wear masks in the next two weeks, as he said medical data shows masks have been shown to reduce infection rates the more people use them. 

But he also said he realizes people in the state are still not sold on wearing masks during their shopping trips and other times they leave their home. 

“I  understand a face covering is not normal for us. It’s not part of our culture. Sometimes, I have to go back to my office when I forget my mask,” Herbert said. “We need to change our habits. This is a sign of respect for those around you. It’s not just about me. And it’s a low-cost way to actually make (reducing the pandemic) happen.”

Herbert was backed up in a statement released Wednesday by 27 faith leaders, including Elder Randy D. Funk, first counselor of the Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We, the under-signed Faith Community Leaders, appeal to people of faith all over the state to wear masks and practice physical distancing, sacrificing a small measure of comfort for the sake of saving lives. We recall that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like unto it, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. One cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while deliberately putting them at risk.”

Nevertheless, Herbert said Iverson is not the only public official he has heard from who is resisting the call to wear face coverings. Lt. Gov. Cox told over the weekend that the wearing of masks should never have been politicized. 

St. George Mayor Jon Pike tries on a Dixie State mask during a Facebook video urging residents to #maskupstg. | Facebook screenshot, St. George News

“There is nothing dumber than politicizing the wearing of masks. It should never have happened, it shouldn’t happen now,” Lt. Gov. Cox, who is running for governor against Iverson’s running-mate Hughes, told “It’s good data, good science, and it’s a way to protect people, and, I cannot emphasize this enough, it’s a way to get back to normal and still prevent the spread of this virus.”

Intermountain’s Briesacher compares people getting used to using masks in the same way people in the 1970s and 80s had to get used to wearing seat belts in their cars. 

“Every day we get in cars and put on our seat belts because that helps keep you safe and helps keep me safe,” Briesacher said. “This mask is just another seat belt we need to put on.”

Herbert acknowledges that there is confusion about the effectiveness of masks since at the very start of the pandemic in March, health experts advised not to wear masks. National experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have said the initial advisement was based on worry about the supply of masks to medical professionals but now says that everyone should wear a mask when out in public. 

However, there are now a multitude of examples and studies showing that wearing a face covering can cause a sharp drop in coronavirus infections by keeping those who have it but show no symptoms from spreading it. 

Sheri Gali, a same-day surgery educator at the hospital, shows off her gratitude as 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

Medical officials have said the outbreaks at three long-term care centers in St. George came despite strict measures because of a staff member unknowingly getting into contact with someone who was asymptomatic outside of work. 

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Medical, cites the case of two hairdressers who found out they had the virus after cutting dozens of people’s hair. However, they followed state guidelines to wear masks and have their clients wear masks. 

“There were 150 exposed to those two people, and zero got COVID-19,” Stenehjem said. 

A new video by the National Institute of Standards and Technology shows airflow from the nose and mouth without any kind of face covering, with different face coverings and with only the nose exposed. 

There are also those worried that masks are actually not healthy to wear because of a building up of carbon dioxide. This has been cited by parents who have said they are unwilling to have their kids wear masks at school.

Recently, a reporter from Reuters asked an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about this and they said, “The CO2 will slowly build up in the mask over time. However, the level of CO2 likely to build up in the mask is mostly tolerable to people exposed to it. The mask can become uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, including a sensitivity to CO2 and the person will be motivated to remove the mask. It is unlikely that wearing a mask will cause hypercapnia.”​

Maps by the Utah Department of Health showing the density of those who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus as of May 15, 2020 (above) and June 18, 2020 (below). | Maps courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News

There have been several other studies, including a National Institutes of Health study from as early as 1982, that say it is next to impossible for a person to get CO2 poisoning from wearing a mask.

“Surgeons have been wearing masks for 24 hours in surgery without trouble. I don’t know where that rumor came from,” said Dr. Jeremy Voros, an emergency medicine physician with MountainStar Healthcare, who added that children wearing masks is very important as they are most likely to be asymptomatic carriers. 

“A child is a more efficient spreader of the virus,” Voros said. “If we can get an entire schoolroom of children to wear masks, we can get a collective effort to not spread the virus.”

Masks have also been cited as the reason why the virus has been kept in check in countries like Japan, where a poll by the Jiji Press found 91% of people in Japan say they are wearing masks.

There were 56 new infections of COVID-19 in the entire country of Japan Wednesday according to Johns Hopkins University, just a few more than Washington County. 

St. George News reporter MORI KESSLER contributed to this report.

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 24, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 1,200 (49 new)
  • Washington County: 936 (37 new)
  • Iron County: 243 (10 new)
  • Garfield County: 11 
  • Kane County: 6
  • Beaver County: 4 (2 new) 

Deaths: 10

  • Washington County: 8
  • Iron County: 1
  • Garfield County: 1

Hospitalized: 24 (2 new) 

Tested: 17,765 (324 new tests)

Recovered: 785 (55 new)

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

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