SALT LAKE CITY — After a week of unprecedented new COVID-19 case counts, Utah officials announced Tuesday that masks will now be required across the state “anywhere people congregate together for an event.”
“I know that masks are controversial. Some people make political statements by either wearing them or not wearing them, but if you take the politics out and you look at the science, masks just work. They’re not the save-all, they don’t do everything we need, but they work,” said Rich Saunders, acting director of the Utah Department of Health, during a news conference.
Regardless of an area’s risk level, spectators, guests, employees and patrons are required to wear masks statewide at public gatherings including theaters, sporting events, live concerts or weddings, Saunders said. Performers are exempt from the mandate. Preexisting county mask mandates, as well as the statewide mandate for K-12 schools, will remain in place, he said.
The announcement comes after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has for months hinted at the possibility of a mask mandate but ultimately declined to implement one, saying he prefers local leaders to make that decision themselves.
When asked if and how the new statewide mask mandate will be enforced, Herbert said that due to compliance with existing local mandates, he believes residents will comply.
“I don’t expect there’s going to be a lot of police out looking for violators. It’s a matter of, it’s an ordinance, it’s an order from our Utah Health Department to help us all to be safe and to keep our economy going,” Herbert said. When pressed further on the issue, he said he wants to leave decisions about implementation and enforcement in the hands of local governments.
Herbert also announced that the state will now place counties under restrictions based on their COVID-19 transmission rates in a system that will replace the Utah Leads Together color-coded plan.
“Our infections are at an all-time high, although Utah has been blessed with one of the lowest mortality rates in the country, and we pray that it will stay that way. The dramatic increase in infection has put the integrity of our health care system at risk,” Herbert said.
Although many have likely become “numb” to daily case counts and “dire warnings,” he said, our hospitals risk becoming overwhelmed.
About 15% of ICU beds are being used to treat COVID-19 patients, Herbert noted, and intensive care units are 70% full overall. University of Utah Health’s intensive care use is at 95%, Herbert said, explaining the need for “a new game plan.”
“Until change happens, we already know where we’re headed. Change will make a difference,” Saunders said, pleading with Utahns to take the disease and the new restrictions seriously.
“It’s a sacrifice, but it’s worth it.”
New health guidance levels
Under the state’s new plan in the battle against the pandemic, counties will move to the high level of transmission if they have a seven-day positive test rate of 13% or more; a two-week case rate of 325 cases or more per 100,000 people; and if statewide intensive care unit usage is 72% or higher overall and 15% or higher with COVID-19 patients specifically.
The moderate level of transmission index will include counties with a seven-day positive test rate of between 6%-12.9%; a two-week case rate between 101-324 per 100,000 people; and statewide intensive care usage between 69%-71.9% overall and 6%-14.9% for COVID-19 patients.
To move to the low transmission category, counties will require a seven-day positive test rate of 5.9% or lower; a two-week case rate of 100 or fewer per 100,000 people; and a statewide intensive care unit usage of 68% or lower and 5.9% or lower from COVID-19 patients.
While masks are required at all public gatherings, nonpublic, casual gatherings have different restrictions based on transmission level, Saunders said. Church meetings are considered public gatherings under the guidelines. The state is not defining how many people may attend public gatherings.
Now, Salt Lake, Utah, Cache, Juab, Wasatch and Garfield counties are in the high transmission level, meaning residents there are required to wear masks in indoor public settings and outdoors where physical distancing isn’t possible. They also need to limit casual social gatherings to 10 people, Saunders said.
The announcement comes one week after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall requested to move the city to the orange, or moderate, restriction level under the previous phased guidelines. Herbert had not announced whether he would approve that request before Salt Lake County was placed into the high transmission level under the new guidelines.
“I commend @GovHerbert for the bold measures he’s enacting today to break the spike of cases our state is experiencing, as well as the broader shift of COVID restrictions to more directly target the behaviors we know have the highest impact,” Mendenhall tweeted on Tuesday after the announcement.
“The spike in our local and statewide data has been severe and a move like this is an important signal that our current situation is serious for public health and our economy. We all need to wear our masks more often than we have been, when with our friends and extended family and in all social and public gatherings. #slc #utpol,” Mendenhall said.
Meanwhile, Box Elder, Carbon, Davis, Grand, Iron, Millard, Morgan, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Tooele, Uintah, Washington and Weber counties are in the moderate transmission level. Residents there must limit gatherings to 25 or fewer unless masks are worn.
For residents in counties in the moderate transmission level, a temporary public mask mandate and a limit on gatherings of 10 or more will also be in place for two weeks beginning Thursday through Oct. 29, Saunders said.
Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Kane, Piute, Rich and Wayne counties are in the low transmission level, in which social gatherings are limited to 50 or fewer unless masks are worn, Saunders said.
“All are expected to operate under the same safety protocols regardless of the level of transmission in their county,” he said.
Counties will be able to move from lower to higher transmission levels every week, but counties can only move to lower levels after spending at least 14 days in a higher level, said Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
To move to a different phase, Saunders said a county must reach two of the three metrics (positive test rate, case rate and hospital usage.)
Every Thursday, the Utah Department of Health website will provide updates on which counties are at which level and why.
Utah reported 987 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths on Tuesday.
The cases were confirmed out of 8,801 tests, with an 11.2% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health. The rolling seven-day average for new cases is now 1,182 per day, and the average positive test rate is 13.8%.
Currently, 249 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, the same number of patients who were hospitalized on Monday.
Now 87,819 cases have been confirmed of 931,732 people tested since the beginning of the pandemic in Utah, a 9.4% positive rate. Hospitalizations in the state since the outbreak began now total 4,383.
Nearly 64,500 of Utah’s cases are considered recovered after surviving the three-week point since their diagnoses, meaning about 22,700 cases remain active.
Herbert also announced on Tuesday he will end the state’s emergency declaration and transition into a public health emergency this week “to focus only on the public health needs of the people of Utah.”