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COVID-19 is spreading. Why aren’t Utahns staying put?

In times of normalcy, social cohesion is usually great. But when it comes to a pandemic, helping your neighbor means keeping away.

Y Mountain east of Provo, pictured in this file photo taken Thursday, June 6, 2013.
Y Mountain east of Provo is pictured on Thursday, June 6, 2013. According to a New York Times analysis of anonymous cellphone data, as of last Friday, residents of Utah and Salt Lake counties were still averaging more than 2 miles of travel per day. 
Ravell Call, Deseret News

As COVID-19 continues to spread, many Utahns aren’t staying home.

That must change.

One of the nation’s foremost experts on disaster law woke up on Thursday morning to some troubling news: According to a New York Times analysis of anonymous cellphone data, as of last Friday, residents of Utah and Salt Lake counties were still averaging more than 2 miles of travel per day.

When compared with other U.S. counties of more than 500,000 residents, this put Utah’s two most populous regions squarely within the nation’s 20 worst offenders.

For Lisa Grow Sun — a distinguished professor at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and a leading authority on disaster law — more must be done to communicate the importance of staying put.

“I’m concerned to see two of Utah’s counties within the top 20. People need to stay home as much as possible,” she said. Although Sun applauded many of the efforts underway to try and slow the spread of the virus, she’s hopeful to see “a bit more proactive messaging.”

As the Deseret News reports, the Beehive State is one of the last in the nation without a mandatory “stay-at-home order,” but it has strongly advised residents to practice social distancing and remain at home except for all but essential activity. To be sure, Utah has differences between heavily populated urban areas and its wide-open rural areas. It makes sense to allow for flexibility. But, given the data out of Utah County, it’s perhaps time for local leaders there to get tougher and follow the lead of Salt Lake, Summit and Davis counties in making staying at home mandatory.

Mandatory orders often still allow for exercise, grocery shopping and essential travel and work, but put more weight behind social distancing and isolation.

So why can’t Utah stay put?

Cellphone data alone doesn’t necessarily mean Utahns are altogether ignoring social distancing guidelines. After all, sitting in a car can be as effective a quarantine as sitting alone at home. However, movement is an important metric to gauge whether people are going out and interacting, even in small groups.

It appears that Utah’s high level of social cohesion — a genuine virtue in the absence of a pandemic — may in fact make it harder for the state to socially isolate. On a variety of measures, Utah residents consistently rank as some of the most cohesive in the country.

In times of normalcy, says Sun, social cohesion is usually great. But when it comes to a pandemic, helping your neighbor means keeping away.

Additionally, Utah has one of the youngest populations in the country.

As individuals perceive a direct threat to their health or their family from the virus, it appears that they’re more likely to protect themselves and others. Across the nation some younger people in good health haven’t taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously. Since mortality rates are much lower for those who are young and free of underlying health complications, there’s a sense among more than a few that, in the words of one shoulder shrugging spring breaker, “If I get corona, I get corona.”

Of course, such an attitude only increases the spread and jeopardizes the health of the vulnerable. To his credit, the notorious spring breaker has since taken back his words.

While teens and college-age students have, as of late, been called out for holding parties or gathering for spring break, some younger parents — at least anecdotally — are still permitting play dates and letting kids gather within Utah County’s tightly interwoven cul-de-sacs.

If this continues, Sun believes county and state officials may be compelled to take greater action.

To date, Utah hasn’t seen the same kind of outbreak that’s taken place in “hot spots” throughout the country. This may also be a contributing factor to laissez faire travel patterns in the state.

But, if the virus has taught us anything over the past month, it’s that a calm situation can deteriorate quickly when the virus spreads.

As Sun explained over the phone, if you get behind in a disaster situation, it’s much harder to play catchup. Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt observed back in early March: “Anything said in advance of a pandemic seems alarmist. After a pandemic begins, anything one has said or done is inadequate.”

Maybe it’s time to sound a few more alarms.

For Sun, she would like to see a bit more teeth in local and state admonitions.

Whereas Salt Lake, Summit, and Davis counties have issued mandatory stay-at-home orders, Utah County has taken a more relaxed approach, telling one reporter that, while they’re obviously monitoring the data, they don’t feel a stay-at-home order is necessary right now.

When I reached out to Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge, he noted that the county had “issued a public health order which mirrors the order issued by the state department of health.” Those orders are to voluntarily stay home. That’s sound advice, but it’s not clear whether everyone is following it.

To date, testing in Utah County has also been relatively sparse, with only two sites up and running.

Officials have said they’re working to expand the number of sites, and, on Thursday, the governor announced a program that Sun believes could help, if people participate. The state and Silicon Slopes have partnered to publish an online health evaluation to help individuals determine their risk and access testing for COVID-19.

In addition to social distancing, health officials have consistently said that testing (identifying those who are infected as soon as possible) is critical to slowing the spread.

Utah’s unique population may present added challenges to social distancing, but perhaps this new partnership and other emerging initiatives are signs that Utah’s prosocial ethos can be turned toward fighting the virus as well.

Those who — like Sun — know the steep cost of disasters can only hope.