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COVID-19 restrictions easing in most of Utah

Team sports will resume, pools can open Saturday, but Salt Lake and West Valley cities remain under moderate risk guidelines

Gov. Gary Herbert, left, walks to the microphone as Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, looks on during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 14, 2020.
Gov. Gary Herbert, left, walks to the microphone as Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, looks on during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 14, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Beginning Saturday, businesses in most parts of Utah will be allowed to open, as well as swimming pools and team sports, so long as social distancing can be maintained.

“I like the trend, I like the numbers. I like what’s taking place,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday. “It gives me hope and optimism about the future.”

He said it is time to “turn the dial incrementally” to get closer to full economic recovery.

Herbert said the majority of the state will move from a moderate health risk to a low-risk designation, as outlined in the Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan, at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Areas that will remain under tighter restrictions include Grand, Summit and Wasatch counties, Salt Lake City and West Valley City.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she had hoped the entire county — because it has experienced a higher positive case rate over the past several weeks — would remain under stricter guidelines for an additional 10 days. She said more time is needed to assess the impact of the state’s plan to reopen in phases.

“The virus doesn’t understand municipal boundaries and therefore, countywide caution and prudence will still be essential for success,” Wilson said, adding that face coverings and social distancing is still the most effective way to keep the community safe. “Now, more than ever, we need to be united in the commitment to those safe practices.”

The governor’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission made the recommendation Thursday based on closely tracked data involving transmission rates, hospital capacity, positive-test rate and tracking the exposure sources after the virus is detected.

“SLC zip codes 84116 and 84104 have continuously shown some of the highest COVID-19 numbers in the state,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted Thursday afternoon. She seemed wary of lifting restrictions when the city hasn’t yet seen a decline in cases.

“Let’s continue taking care of one another so that we can ensure our city is on solid footing before we move to the next phase of recovery,” Mendenhall said.

Dr. Michael Good, dean at the University of Utah’s School of Medicine and a member of the state’s commission, said 99% of infected Utahns are recovering from coronavirus and 92% recover at home, without needing to be hospitalized. Still, he added, people over age 65 and those with existing medical conditions or otherwise compromised immune systems remain at high risk of complications should they acquire the virus.

“Coronavirus is a bully,” Good said. “It finds and attacks at-risk individuals. Coronavirus finds and attacks older members of our communities. Coronavirus finds and attacks those that have other medical conditions.”

In addition to age, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that lung disease or asthma, serious heart conditions, immunocompromised states, severe obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and liver disease, all increase the likelihood of a person needing a hospital bed should they contract COVID-19.

“Even though the death rate is only 1%, those are the individuals likely to be beaten by coronavirus,” he said. Good encouraged all Utahns to protect anyone at risk.

Another 129 cases of COVID-19 were reported by the Utah Department of Health on Thursday, bringing the total number of cases to 6,749. The state has tested more than 160,119 people and has had 558 hospitalizations since the start of the outbreak. Ninety-nine people are currently hospitalized with the novel coronavirus in Utah, the health department reports.

No new deaths were reported in Utah Thursday, and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the coronavirus mortality rate is about 1.1% in the state.

In all, 75 people, with an average age of 74, have died with COVID-19 in Utah since March.

Herbert said the same protocols that have been in place, including wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing, should continue.

“All of us need to still be careful and cautious,” he said. “This is individual responsibility and common sense combined, and they still apply as we go forward with this new designation.”

Herbert said schools that were close to summer break anyway, will remain closed. Driver education will become available for new drivers in the state, as well as opportunities to travel throughout Utah.

Team sports will resume, though spectators must maintain social distance, and swimming pools can open so long as people don’t congregate in large groups. Gatherings that have been limited to up to 20 people will be allowed up to 50 people under the new low-risk designation.

“We are slowly opening the valve,” Herbert said. “We hope if we handle this right, we will not have a surge. Then again, if it happens, we will be ready.”

On Wednesday, Dunn said that because the virus has impacted different areas of the state differently, it would make sense that they reopen at different times. She said then she would not recommend transitioning to yellow anywhere along the Wasatch Front, where pockets of new cases still exist.

“We’re not going to go back to ‘normal’ for some time,” she said Wednesday, adding that no model can predict the future of COVID-19 in Utah, or elsewhere. She also noted that because around 5% have become infected so far here, it is important to maintain capacities and sustain the energy to manage the virus until a vaccine is available.

On Thursday, Dunn said these decisions aren’t always made “in a public health silo.”

Herbert anticipates full economic recovery in the state by the end of the year.

“This is a great day,” Herbert said. “It’s an opportunity to move forward little by little. There is reason to be hopeful and optimistic. The proof will be in how we act in this time.”

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 3,604; 319 hospitalized; 51 deaths
  • Utah County, 1,435; 85 hospitalized; 11 deaths
  • Summit County, 393; 34 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Davis County, 349; 28 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Weber-Morgan, 214; 28 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • Wasatch County, 188; 9 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Southwest Utah, 187; 16 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • San Juan County, 154; 18 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • Tooele County, 84; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Bear River, 83; 12 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Central Utah, 29; 2 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 16; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Southeast Utah, 13; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths