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Utah rolls out new COVID-19 restrictions including mask rules

Oct 13, 2020, 11:54 AM | Updated: 7:29 pm
COVID-19 cause of death restrictions...
Gov. Gary Herbert addresses reporters via video conference on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. The state medical examiner addressed how COVID-19 deaths are determined. Screen grab from KSLNewsRadio.com

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert announced new restrictions related to COVID-19 after four weeks of increased case counts and hospitalizations, along with a new guidance system for the state of Utah and a renewed emphasis on wearing masks. 

Health officials believe this new system will clear up some of the confusion from the color-coded “risk level” method.  State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn said this new system better uses up-to-date information to take a closer look at how the virus is spreading in each county.

“[We look at] case rates, percent positivity and statewide ICU utilizations,” she said.

Based on those factors, people can better understand how quickly the virus is spreading.  Based on current data, counties like Salt Lake, Utah, Juab, Cache, Garfield and Wasatch would already be put in the “high transmission” category.

Dunn said, “The coronavirus.utah.gov website is going to be updated every Thursday, and it’s going to reflect which counties are at which level.”

A county can be moved from a lower level to a higher one, but, once its placed in that higher bracket, the county will have to stay there for a while.

“Counties can only be moved from higher to lower levels after spending a minimum of 14 days in that higher level,” according to Dunn.

Herbert stopped short of calling the new restrictions a “mask mandate,” but he and health officials stressed face coverings as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19. That includes requiring masks at all public events, regardless of the county’s transmission index status. 

Counties considered high transmission areas

In the six counties the state has determined to be “high transmission areas,” social gatherings in those counties will be limited to 10 or fewer people, and masks will be required in public places where social distancing is not possible. 

Utah health officials consider more than a dozen counties at a moderate level (Box Elder, Carbon, Davis, Grand, Iron, Millard, Morgan, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Tooele, Uintah, Washington and Weber), meaning masks will be required by public health directive through at least Oct. 29, 2020. 

“I, like you, am tired of 2020,” Herbert said, acknowledging the work of many Utahns to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But he added, “Frankly, it doesn’t matter how tired we are. We must in fact win this fight.” 

Public health order

Herbert also announced a shift for Utah from a state of emergency to a public health emergency. 

The public health order mentioned above comes from the Utah Department of Health. It states that all people living in high and moderate transmission areas are to limit casual social gatherings to 10 people or fewer. 

Herbert said this order, along with mask requirements and other restrictions in counties with high and moderate transmission levels, is designed to break the current spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“This is unacceptable”

Herbert called Utah’s current spike in cases “one of the worst outbreaks in the country,” and pointed to the strain on hospitals, saying the Utah National Guard is on standby to help open an emergency hospital facility for overflow if needed. 

“We had a strong first quarter in this contest against the virus,” Herbert said.

He credited that early work for buying the state time to address potential shortages of personal protective equipment and reduce the strain hospitals.

“Unfortunately, over the last four weeks, we have seen our infection rates and case counts skyrocket to the highest they have ever been.” 

“This is unacceptable,” Herbert added. 

Watch the announcement below:

Gov. Herbert previously shied away from statewide COVID-19 restrictions, preferring to leave decisions such as whether to mandate face masks up to local officials with approval from the state. However, before school started this fall, he warned the state needed to get its seven-day rolling average of new daily case increases to below 500 per day to avoid further restrictions related to COVID-19. 

What the new guidance means

This new guidance for counties replaces the Utah Leads Together color-coded system. 

The transmission index takes into account county case rates, ICU capacity, and percent positivity, said Dunn. Because officials will update the data weekly, counties may find their transmission index status changed weekly as well. 

Rich Saunders, interim executive director of the Utah Department of Health, asked Utahns to wear masks regardless of their county’s current transmission index. 

“I know masks can be a political statement,” said Saunders. “But we know masks work.”  

He said the new guidance targets large gatherings, like weddings, because they are significant spreaders of COVID-19 in Utah. 

“Masks are required in all transmission levels when in a large group setting,” Saunders said.  

Masks would be required in high transmission areas, public indoor settings, and even outdoors when physical distancing is not possible. 

The mask requirements are enforceable, but it’s unclear how that will happen.

Other rule changes 

Counties or local areas that currently operate with a mask mandate would still do so under the new rules. Masks will also continue to be required in K-12 schools and state-owned buildings. 

Saunders said casual social gatherings will be limited to 10 or fewer people in high transmission areas, 25 or fewer people in moderate transmission areas unless masks are worn, and 50 or fewer people in low transmission areas unless masks are worn. 

Health officials say social gatherings between friends and family are also helping spread COVID-19 because people are usually not as careful.

“While it may be true in casual, social gatherings [that] we’re usually among trusted loved ones and friends, the virus knows no boundaries,” Saunders said. “Because we let down our guard in these settings, it’s a popular point of viral spread.”   

He said public gatherings and events can continue at all transmission levels so long as people wear masks. Saunders stressed, the number of people allowed in a venue or at a public event should depend on the ability to establish a minimum of six feet between attendees. 

Businesses can stay open so long as they follow safety protocols, regardless of the transmission index in their area. Those protocols include having employees stay home when they are sick. 

Current case counts

The Utah Department of Health reported 987 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, ahead of Herbert’s announcement about restrictions. Those cases came from 8,801 tests, meaning the positivity rate for the day’s cases was about 11.2%. The rolling seven-day average hit 1,182 per day, with a rolling seven-day positive test rate of 13.8%.  

State officials say hospitals currently have 249 patients in treatment for COVID-19, the same number as yesterday. However, the total number of hospitalizations to date is 4,383, an increase of 52 since the day before. The state did not report any additional deaths.


How To Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus

COVID-19 coronavirus spreads person to person, similar to the common cold and the flu. So, to prevent it from spreading:

  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Keep children and those with compromised immune systems away from someone who is coughing or sneezing (in this instance, at least six feet)
  • If there is an outbreak near you, practice social distancing (stay at home, instead of going to the movies, sports events, or other activities.)
  • Get a flu shot.

Local resources

KSL Coronavirus Q&A 

Utah’s Coronavirus Information 

Utah State Board of Education

Utah Hospital Association

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Utah Coronavirus Information Line – 1-800-456-7707

National Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Commonly asked questions, World Health Organization

Cases in the United States

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Utah rolls out new COVID-19 restrictions including mask rules