SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that for at least the next two weeks, mass gatherings of groups in Utah should be limited to no more than 100 healthy people.

The effort, he said, is one of many “proactive” steps to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus.

“Today we stop making decisions based on a hope that things will get better, and start making them based on an assumption that things will get worse.” Herbert said, adding that social distancing to “get ahead of the spread” of disease is based on science.

Nearly all of Utah’s public schools plan to remain in session, but closures are a possibility and those decisions will be made at the local level, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson. She recommended that all districts restrict out-of-state travel.

Utah schools were also asked to stagger start times, recesses and lunch periods for two weeks so large numbers of students are not gathered, and to ramp up hygiene efforts.

“The safety of our students and the adults who serve them is our priority,” Dickson said. “We don’t take the idea of closing schools lightly.”

Districts throughout the state are assessing resources and making changes to schedules, giving teachers time to prepare internet-based instruction materials. Local health departments will be working with schools to determine the need for closure, Dickson said.

The Murray School District, however, sent its students home early on Thursday and closed its 10 schools until further notice after reporting that they “became aware of potential direct contact exposure to COVID-19 within the district. ... Because we are concerned about the health and safety of our students and staff, we are exercising an abundance of caution.”

Sophomores Zoe Scott and Oakleigh Harman wait for their bus to leave Murray High School on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Murray City School District announced Thursday it is closing its schools until further notice amid spread of the novel coronavirus in Utah. Most students and teachers left school after the announcement was made earlier in the day. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints late Thursday afternoon canceled all meetings, activities and public gatherings of church members worldwide until further notice. Local leaders were encouraged to use technology to conduct meetings, and individual bishops and stake presidents will decide how to make the sacrament available to members at least once a month.

The K2 Church in Murray, which normally attracts about 1,000 people each Sunday, said it will stream services on Facebook Live, something they’ve already been doing.

The superintendent of Utah’s Catholic Schools announced all Catholic places of worship and religious education programs will close. Any instruction will occur remotely through technology.

“We do not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our schools,” Superintendent Mark Longe said. “We do, however, have students and family members who have been quarantined due to their possible exposure to the virus.”

‘Like a cold’

Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Utah has five confirmed cases — all travel related — including Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, who both tested positive with the illness in Oklahoma on Wednesday.

All of them are expected to make a full recovery, she said, adding that it is fortunate the state has yet not seen more severe cases of the illness.

“There is no widespread transmission of COVID-19 in Utah,” Dunn said. But “even with these measures, we expect to have more cases here.”

Dunn said Utahns should “continue to do the things that make you and your family happy.”

The limit of 100 people is for “healthy individuals. If they feel sick, they should not show up” to any gathering, Herbert said, adding that people over 60 or who have compromised immune systems should avoid gatherings of more than 20 people.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who heads the state’s COVID-19 Community Task Force, said coronavirus seems to have an incubation period of two to 14 days, which means that most cases of unknown transmission will run their course after about two weeks. The virus seems to be most contagious when people are the most symptomatic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For most of us, if we contract this virus, we will be just fine,” Cox said, adding that it will “feel very much like a cold” and not require medical attention.

But for anyone who develops more severe illness, it will be imperative that medical care is available.

“What we know is the mortality rate decreases significantly if we get people the best care available,” Cox said, adding that the state’s preemptive approach aims to limit overburdening health care systems.

Dr. Michael Good, CEO at University of Utah Health, said seasonal flu comes in a slow wave and typically does not overwhelm health care systems due to vaccinations and residual immunity from the previous year’s infection.

This strain of the coronavirus, however, is a new organism and people do not have immunity to it and there is no vaccine or drugs available to treat it.

Thusly, “communities that do not prepare get hit by a tsunami,” he said, adding that hygiene and social distancing guidelines will help slow down that tsunami and turn it into a slow wave.

University classes

Brigham Young University, University of Utah, Weber State University, Utah Valley University and Utah State University on Thursday announced a move to online-only instruction immediately, but canceling classes completely March 13 through March 17 “to allow faculty members time to move their classes into the online learning environment,” USU officials said.

BYU also encouraged students who can to leave campus and continue their studies at home through the end of the semester.

Events at all the campuses are canceled at least for the next two weeks, and some through the end of the semester.

Westminster College moved all classes to an online format, canceling in-person instruction and campus events until March 27.

Other higher education institutions are expected to follow suit, but “will take some time” to work it out. Some schools are in the middle of spring break this week.

“Unprecedented times call for unprecedented actions,” USU President Noelle Cockett said.

Other canceled events

A number of concerts, conferences, sporting events and other functions were also temporarily canceled amid concerns of coronavirus, but also to help accomplish social distancing throughout the state for the next two weeks.

The Utah High School Activities Association also announced the suspension of the state’s debate championships, scheduled for this weekend, and the suspension of all spring activities and sports beginning Monday, March 16, for at least two weeks. 

The association gave individual schools and districts the option to suspend activities immediately.

Steve Starks, CEO of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, said the company’s top priority is the safety of Utah Jazz players, their families, team personnel, the franchise’s employees and fans.

The NBA has suspended all games and the Jazz will contact season ticket holders shortly.

Starks said the events are “unprecedented,” but he is confident they will “make us stronger and more unified as a community.”

As a result of a European travel ban instituted by President Donald Trump, Delta Airlines in Salt Lake City will temporarily suspend flights to and from Amsterdam, Paris after Friday. A post on Delta’s website earlier in the day said flights to London Heathrow from Salt Lake City would also be suspended, but later in the day that route no longer appeared on the list.

Fire districts across the state were announcing temporary termination of all nonessential functions, including noncritical public interactions.

The Utah Hibernian Society canceled its popular St. Patrick’s Day parade this Saturday, hoping to reschedule for a later date.

A security guard turns people away at an entrance to City Creek Center in Salt Lake City after the shopping center closed for the day on Thursday, March 12, 2020. City Creek officials said they were closing to clean and disinfect after discovering that a shopper with a confirmed case of COVID-19 entered the mall on Tuesday. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

And City Creek Center downtown shuttered its doors immediately Thursday after learning that a shopper with confirmed COVID-19 had patronized there on Tuesday.

Salt Lake County announced its senior centers, recreation centers, libraries, arts and cultural facilities, the equestrian center and the Clark Planetarium will all be closed for two weeks starting Friday.

Multiple theaters also announced Thursday that they are temporarily canceling performances.

Herbert said he expects there will be economic impacts to these events, but he predicted that Utah and the nation will recover.

“I know there is high anxiety,” he said, but called on Utahns to be “reasonable and rational.”

He added, “A run on stores and tempers flaring is not the Utah way.”

Intermountain Healthcare said “a surge” of people who are not sick are overwhelming clinics and hospitals, “affecting our caregivers’ ability to provide care for those truly in need,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist.

“We understand why some people are concerned,” he said. “But we are asking the public to not go to hospitals and clinics for COVID-19 testing if symptoms aren’t present, such as cough, fever or shortness of breath.”

The system encourages people to use its expanded telehealth services, including the ConnectCare smartphone application.

Cox called on Utahns to take care of each other and “not wait for the government to solve all of our problems.”

He said he believes “the worst of times bring out the best in people.”

Contributing: Amy Donaldson