SALT LAKE CITY – With the general election over, Utah’s lame duck governor has now decided to take drastic steps to reduce the state’s skyrocketing rates of coronavirus infection.
Gov. Gary Herbert took to the airwaves Sunday evening to declare a new state of emergency in response to Utah hospitals nearing their capacity to deal with new COVID-19 patients.
While emphasizing that “Utah is still open for business,” the governor imposed four statewide restrictions taking effect immediately and lasting for the next two weeks.
Those emergency measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus are a statewide mask mandate; a ban on all casual social gatherings with anyone other than immediate family members; a postponement of all sporting events and extra-curricular activities with the exception of playoffs, championship games and intercollegiate athletics; and an enhanced regimen of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
Herbert’s announcement came as the Utah Health Department’s weekend reports of COVID-19 infections averaged more than 2,500 new cases for Saturday and Sunday.
Health officials also report that 424 Utahns are now hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, bringing the total number of statewide hospitalization since the pandemic began to 6,084.
After months of urging Utahns to do the right thing voluntarily in terms of observing health precautions, Herbert announced that the new restrictions would have teeth for the first time.
“By order of my office and the Utah Department of Health, Utahns may not host casual social gatherings … for the next two weeks, which is the incubation period of COVID-19,” Herbert said. “Further, it should be known that we will not tolerate public gatherings that do not exercise appropriate safety precautions in terms of social distancing and mask wearing. State and local authorities will prosecute and hold accountable those who sponsor and organize such events and gatherings. Those organizers will be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per occurrence.”
The governor stressed that recent data indicates that Utahns are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection during casual social gatherings with persons outside their own households.
“Our data also show that individuals aged 15 to 24 have not been careful in casual social gatherings because the highest rates of infection are now occurring among this age group,” Herbert added.
The two-week postponement of most high school activities, according to Herbert, will give state officials time to immediately prioritize the testing of student athletes involved in playoff and championship games, plus put in place a robust process of testing student athletes involved in other winter sports and activities.
“Our public health teams will also significantly expand our COVID-19 testing efforts during this two-week period and beyond,” the governor explained. “We will test those individuals who have symptoms and launch targeted testing of those who do not have symptoms. This will begin with weekly testing of our university students and expand to include high school students who participate in extracurricular activities, people in the workplace under the age of 35 and high school teachers. We will also expand the role of the National Guard in contact tracing.”
Herbert emphasized that state health officials agree that a statewide economic shutdown is not needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Let me be clear …” he said. “You can still shop, dine-in, carry-out, exercise, worship and many other things … But the wearing of masks and exercising every precaution (for the next two weeks) when it comes to gatherings with others, including social distancing, is crucial.”
The governor concluded his emergency address by promising that state officials would soon provide Utahns with safety recommendations for upcoming holiday gatherings.