Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered a statewide mask mandate beginning Monday as well as halts on extracurricular activities and casual social gatherings among those of different households as skyrocketing COVID-19 cases are straining hospitals.

College students who live on campuses or who attend at least one in-person class will also be required to get tested for the disease every week under the new public health orders he announced late Sunday evening in a pre-recorded message aired across local TV stations.

“We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer,” the governor said.

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The state is seeing an average of more than 2,200 cases a day and a positive rate above 20%, the latest health department data shows.

“The number of infections in our state is growing at an alarming rate. Our hospitals in Utah are among the best in the world. But they cannot give the best care when hospitals are at capacity and medical professionals are exhausted and spread too thin, and that is what is happening now,” Herbert said.

The order begins Monday and will last until Nov. 23. The mask mandate, however, will be extended until further notice, Herbert said.

Churches are not affected by the new restrictions but are encouraged to take steps to help battle the virus.

The mask mandate applies to everyone when in public and when within 6 feet of someone with whom they don’t share a household. Businesses must require employees to wear masks, “promote” mask-wearing for patrons and post signage. Those that don’t will face fines, officials said.

Herbert said the new public health order comes after a week of “analysis and consideration” since he met with Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, on Halloween. Officials said both leaders “stressed that requiring masks, limiting social gatherings and testing young populations are the most critical actions” needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Masks do not negatively affect our economy and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus. Experts tell us that masks do not cause a shortage of oxygen to your brain or cause disease,” Herbert said Sunday evening.

“Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom. Laws are put in place to protect all of us. That’s why we have traffic lights, speed limits and seat belts, and that’s why we now have a mask mandate,” Herbert said.

Health officials have found that mask mandates have made spread of the disease in public and institutional spaces “minimal,” and data shows people are most vulnerable in casual, social gatherings. 

“What I shared with you this evening is not a shutdown of our society or our economy. We are not closing any businesses,” Herbert said.  “Utah is open for business. You can still shop, dine in or carry out, exercise, worship and recreate, and many other things.” 

Details, order enforcement

While extracurricular activities including intramurals and most athletics are postponed, the order does not apply to intercollegiate athletic events or practices and games associated with high school championships that follow instructions for testing and limiting crowd size. That’s because the state currently has the capacity to provide those athletes asymptomatic testing, governor-elect and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox told the Deseret News.

Other sports are “on hold” while the state gets additional testing resources — meaning upcoming seasons are not canceled. Group athletic events like Junior Jazz Youth Basketball and swim teams are also halted, state officials said. But gyms and fitness centers can continue operating as they follow masking and physical distance requirements.

Dance and cheer classes, as well as similar activities held by private studios can continue as they follow social distancing guidelines, Herbert clarified Monday.

Herbert’s office Monday night had said youth dance classes held by gyms and fitness centers were also halted for two weeks.

Bars are required under the order to close no later than 10 p.m. Bars and restaurants are both required to seat separate household groups at least 6 feet away from each other — a measure most restaurants in the state have already taken.

Cox said officials don’t plan to cite private citizens accused of violating the orders.

“It’s impossible to enforce these types of things inside of people’s homes, and nobody wants to do that,” he said. “We don’t have the law enforcement or the capacity for those types of things.”

But leaders are relying on Utahns to do their best to follow the orders, and Cox said he hopes that for 99% of the population enforcement won’t be an issue. The Utah Labor Commission will monitor and cite businesses that don’t enforce mask wearing among employees or fail to post signage about the mask mandate, Cox said.

Officials will continue working closely with organizers of large public gatherings — which are under different restrictions than casual, social gatherings — to ensure restrictions including masks are met.

Organizers who don’t follow the orders could also get cited, Cox said.

“Furthermore, it should be known that we will not tolerate organizers of public gatherings that do not exercise the required precautions of social distancing and mask-wearing,” Herbert said. 

State and local authorities will prosecute those who sponsor public gatherings without following the guidelines. They will be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per occurrence, the governor said.

Hospitals under strain

The changes come after nearly a month of more than 1,000 cases confirmed each day in the state. Last week, current hospitalizations began climbing beyond what had been seen in Utah during the pandemic so far, prompting another round of pleas from hospital officials for residents to help stem the spread.

Hospital leaders originally asked for a statewide mask mandate in June, but the governor had repeatedly said throughout the pandemic he wants to leave control in the hands of local officials and trust residents to make the decision to protect themselves and others.

Greg Bell, Utah Hospital Association president, said University of Utah Hospital and Intermountain Healthcare are both operating at high stress levels and near ICU capacity.

“The governor, like all of us and the Utah Department of Health, has seen the terrible  numbers this week, which daily put us over an average of over 2,500. And likewise, we’ve had an average of about between 80 and 90 hospitalizations every day. And given the surge in numbers, we know that that’ll bring so many hospitalizations,” Bell said, warning that those stats are going to “overstrain us.”

He said the case counts due to the new measures likely won’t decrease for between seven to 10 days — meaning hospitals will remain in a tenuous situation for a while yet.

“Ideally, we would’ve put in some more enhanced community kind of precautions weeks ago,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, noting that a number of hospital leaders have long been calling for more stringent measures.

“So ideally that’s when we would’ve put in place so we would’ve avoided kind of the crisis ... but we can’t do anything about that, so we’re looking at these enhanced health measures positively,” Stenehjem said, calling it a “good first step” from the governor.

“Universal mask mandate is an absolute must, minimizing social gatherings outside of your immediate families is an absolute must,” he said.

Stenehjem said the biggest challenge hospitals face now isn’t a shortage of beds but of doctors and nurses who can care for the most serious patients in the ICU. Within weeks, the system might need to have those who don’t routinely care for ICU patients care for them.

“We know that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Stenehjem said.

“We just hope that the community recognizes this as a moment where we all have to change. We all have to sacrifice for the common good. And we are having people dying that is unnecessary, and these are things that we could’ve prevented, but we really need to change course now and change our behavior to really change the way we move forward with this virus,” he said.

Cox, who was elected last week to be Utah’s next governor starting in January, called controlling the disease spread his “No. 1” priority.

“There was a lot we didn’t know at the start of the pandemic,” Cox said in a statement. “Now we know better what we are up against, and we know more about how to fight it. We know masks work. We know limiting gatherings and maintaining distance from each other works.

“Our dedicated medical professionals are learning more about which therapeutics work to combat the disease. I am confident that we can beat this, but only if each of us does more. As leaders, we know testing is a critical piece of our response. While we ask Utahns to do some heavy lifting, we’re also significantly ramping up targeted testing in age groups that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us are frequently asymptomatic,” Cox said.

New testing effort

As part of the comprehensive effort to bring case counts down, additional National Guard staff will help the state with contact-tracing. State officials will also launch an “accelerated” testing program for asymptomatic individuals that will provide the weekly testing on college campuses and testing for students who participate in extracurricular activities. Later, the state wants to implement workplace testing for people 35 and younger, “since this age group is most likely to be asymptomatic if they contract COVID-19,” officials said.

Commissioner of Higher Education Dave R. Woolstenhulme said in a statement that institutions in the Utah System of Higher Education will “scale up” weekly testing for campuses statewide. There are 230,000 students in Utah’s colleges.

“We can reach a large portion of Utah’s population through our campus communities, and, through increased and consistent testing, we can slow the spread of COVID-19 in the State of Utah,” Woolstenhulme said. “We are supportive of the requirement to test our students weekly for COVID-19, and we are in the position to make a positive impact.”

Meanwhile, the Utah Department of Health is working to expand rapid asymptomatic testing to high school teachers. PCR tests are already available to teachers throughout the state at Test Utah sites.

Sydnee Dickson, state school superintendent, said she supports the new orders and the effort to expand testing for teachers.

“Our schools have done a tremendous job in mitigating the virus in our classrooms and buildings. Utah is also one of the few states that tracks and publishes outbreak data on a public dashboard. These elements have been key in keeping our rate of spread in schools relatively low,” Dickson said.

“However, we are concerned about the rising rates of spread that seemingly occur outside of the classroom. We believe that adding robust testing of students involved in activities outside of the school day will help identify outbreaks more quickly, allow us to continue in-person learning where feasible, and further protect our school communities.”

But Heidi Matthews, Utah Education Association president, said in a statement the orders “did not go nearly far enough in tackling the serious issues facing students and educators in our public schools.”

She said the association calls for the governor to implement at-home instruction in communities with high transmission rates, as well as “to work with elementary schools to find workable solutions to support the health and safety of educators.”

Rich Saunders, executive director for the Utah Department of Health, touted asymptomatic testing among those who are spreading the disease as a way to control the surge.

“For some time now, we have been able to test anyone with symptoms of COVID-19. But we know asymptomatic spread is a significant factor in this pandemic and we have to test more than just those who feel sick. Luckily, as the science advances, these tests get less and less invasive,” Saunders said.

New cases

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Utah health officials reported another 2,386 COVID-19 cases and one additional death on Sunday. The new cases were confirmed out of 9,311 people tested, a 25.6% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The rolling seven-day average for new cases is at an all-time high in Utah of 2,290 per day, and the average positive test rate is 20.6%. On Sunday, a record 424 coronavirus patients were hospitalized with the disease in the state, 14 more than were hospitalized the previous day.

The death reported Sunday — a Tooele County man between 45-64 who was hospitalized when he died — brings the state’s toll to 659.

Now 132,621 cases have been confirmed out of 1,158,817 people tested in Utah since the start of the pandemic, with an 11.4% positive rate. Hospitalizations in the state since the outbreak began total 6,084.

Utah’s new public health orders

  • Masks required for everyone in public, and within 6 feet of members of different households.
  • Businesses must enforce masks among employees, promote mask-wearing among patrons, and post signage about a mask mandate.
  • Casual social gatherings —which the state defines as those without oversight by an organization — limited to household-only.
  • All extracurricular activities on hold, including intramurals, athletics and club sports. Intercollegiate sporting events or practices and games associated with high school championships are excluded from the mandate.
  • Students who live on campus at any public and private higher education institution, or who attend at least one in-person class per week, must receive a weekly COVID-19 test.
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