SALT LAKE CITY — Utah surpassed its daily record of new confirmed COVID-19 cases yet again on Friday with 676 positive tests.

Now more than 20,000 Utahns have been infected with the novel coronavirus.

The new cases were confirmed out of 5,514 tests reported, for a positive rate of 12.3%. They bring the state’s case total since the pandemic began to 20,050 out of 317,568 tested — an overall positive rate of 6.3%, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The previous record was broken just one week ago on June 20, when 643 new cases were confirmed in one day.

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, expressed alarm about the continued spikes.

“For the second time in a week, we are announcing our highest daily case count total. These cases affect all Utah residents. They have the potential to threaten our economy, and our ability to ensure people can receive the care they need in our hospitals,” she said in a statement.

“Each one of these cases represents a household that will now be required to quarantine. This means parents will be unable to go to work and children will be unable to see their friends. Each one of these cases inches us closer to maxing out our hospital capacity. If this happens, some Utahns who need hospital care may not be able to get it. And each one of these cases poses a clear and significant danger to somebody who falls into a high-risk category.”

Health officials also reported that 31 additional people were hospitalized Friday for treatment of the novel coronavirus. But the total hospitalizations rose just slightly from 170 on Thursday to 171 on Friday.

“We need large-scale behavior change on the part of all Utahns to reverse this trend. Everyone — whether it’s required in your county or not — needs to be wearing a mask in order to help protect those around you. Everyone should be practicing physical distancing, staying home if they’re sick, and washing their hands regularly,” Dunn said.

Two more deaths from the disease were also reported Friday: a Weber County man between the ages 65 and 84, and a Salt Lake County man older than 85. Both were residents at long-term care facilities. They bring the state’s toll from the coronavirus to 166.

Also on Friday, Intermountain Healthcare said COVID-19 spikes have prompted a reimplementation of more restrictive visitor policies in its Utah and Idaho hospitals. Visitors will now only be allowed under specific circumstances, such as for patients who are children, for mothers in labor, and for adults who need assistance or are at end of life.

What’s driving the surge of COVID-19 cases in Utah?
Faith leaders make an appeal to Utahns: Wear a mask to protect your neighbor
Alexis Osborne, a barista at Tulie Bakery, is reflected in the glass door as she delivers a curbside order to a customer in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020. The bakery offers takeout and curbside delivery, and customers must wear a mask to enter. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Mask requirements

As Salt Lake and Summit counties prepared to implement new requirements that masks must be worn in public places, the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which is tasked with making recommendations in the pandemic, on Friday recommended Gov. Gary Herbert designate $1 million in funds from the state’s COVID-19 Outreach and Education Program to “directly emphasize the importance in wearing a mask.”

“I encourage Utahns to wear masks to help protect neighbors, friends, families and communities,” said state Sen. Dan Hemmert, co-chairman of the commission, in a statement. “Wearing a mask is a simple act to protect vulnerable populations and livelihoods. If wearing a mask means we can continue to lighten other restrictions we’re living under, economic and otherwise, and it means our kids can go back to school this fall, I’m happy to wear a mask.”

“Studies indicate that wearing a mask significantly decreases an individual’s likelihood of getting COVID-19,” added retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, co-chairman of the commission. “This simple act can help Utah stay safe and stay open.”

The Salt Lake County and Summit County mask requirements both go into effect Saturday morning throughout both counties. Herbert approved the requests without comment Thursday night.

Under legislation passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year, local governments must seek permission from the governor to enact any additional COVID-19 restrictions that are more strict than the governor’s statewide orders.

The Summit County Council unanimously approved the mask mandate during a meeting on Friday afternoon. The public health order had tentatively been set to go into effect Monday evening, but the council voted instead to have it go into effect Saturday.

Fiona Spas checks a window display of face masks she just rearranged while working at iconoCLAD in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020. On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert approved requests from Salt Lake County and Summit County to require that masks be worn in public in those two counties. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

On Monday, Summit County officials and business leaders will distribute masks to businesses throughout the county, said deputy county manager Janna Young. But county health director Rich Bullough encouraged businesses to purchase masks, as the county can’t provide all that will be needed.

Herbert’s approval of the two counties’ requests came up against some criticism, including from a Piute County commissioner who compared the governor to Adolf Hitler in a Twitter post that he later deleted.

“Wearing a face covering correctly is one of the easiest things we can do to help our local businesses, and or community as whole, successfully weather this challenging time,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said on Twitter.

She said the approval letter signed by Burton, acting director of the Utah Department of Health, thanked Salt Lake County officials for their leadership. 

“After careful consideration and discussion with the governor, we approve Salt Lake County’s request to implement public mask-wearing procedures based on local health department authority,” the letter said, according to Wilson.

The specifics

The county will require face coverings at both indoor and outdoor public gatherings “where consistent social distancing is not possible,” and for customers waiting outside or inside stores, bars and restaurants, as well as other public areas, Wilson said.

Salt Lake County officials purposefully drafted a health order that is open to interpretation to leave it up to residents to use “common sense,” which is to wear face masks as much as possible when out in the public and around others, said Nicholas Rupp, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman. 

Community gatherings, including church services that involve groups of people, are social situations that will require masks, he said. 

The requirement comes amid a time of conflict between police and minority communities — and that’s something Rupp said county officials are mindful of. Rather than looking to police to enforce the mask requirement in diverse communities, Rupp said county officials are partnering with those neighborhoods’ faith leaders, community leaders and other volunteers who can distribute and educate about the mask requirement.

Masks won’t be required outdoors where physical distancing is “easily maintained,” or for those with health conditions that are exacerbated by masks or for children under 2, the mayor said. People also don’t need to wear a face mask if it would prevent them from performing the essential functions of their job. They also won’t be required for swimming or other strenuous activities.

“The goal of the requirement is not enforcement or to penalize anyone; the goal is to send a strong, clear message about the gravity of our current COVID circumstances and the importance of face coverings in effectively addressing this concerning data,” Wilson said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said enforcement of the order will focus on helping people understand the requirement and bringing them to compliance. Prosecution will be reserved for potential “blatant, intentional” cases of disregarding the requirement and risking others’ health, he said.

Summit County’s draft public health order would also require face masks in lines and inside public places, in all health care settings, in workplaces where food is prepared or packaged or where there is any interaction with the public, and at community gatherings. Violations of the order could be punishable by an infraction.

As in Salt Lake County, those younger than age 2 or with mental or physical conditions that would prevent them from wearing a mask would be exempted from the order.

Also on Friday, Harmons announced masks will be required in all its grocery stores across the state starting July 5, and in Salt Lake County beginning Saturday.

In urging all Utahns to wear masks, health officials have pointed to a few studies that suggest they are effective in helping prevent spread. Among them, research published in the Lancet by doctors from McMaster University in Canada and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon found that 172 observational studies across 16 countries indicated face masks could result in a large reduction in risk of infection. Results appeared stronger with N95 masks, researchers noted.

In a study out of the University of Iowa, researchers looked at COVID-19 rates in states that had mask mandates. The researchers found that between March 25 through May 21 there was a “significant decline” in daily COVID-19 growth rates after officials mandated facial covers in public. The study was limited, however, by the researchers’ inability to measure compliance to the mandates.

Congressman Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said Friday he’s disappointed with the politicization of wearing masks as part of COVID-19 mitigation. Even though he had the disease and is at very low risk for either contracting or transmitting the virus, he wears a mask at his office and in public settings and encourages others to do the same.

“I think listening to the scientific evidence and showing care and compassion for your neighbor should not be a political issue,” McAdams told the Deseret News. “By wearing a mask I’m showing my co-workers and others, strangers in the grocery store, that I care about their safety and am willing to take responsibility.”

Other mask mandates?

As the face mask debate continues to be steeped in politics, other county officials in areas facing surges aren’t seeking to mandate masks.

In Utah County, Salt Lake County’s southern neighbor that leans much more to the conservative right, officials aren’t inclined to require masks. 

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who is up for election next week, said he believes wearing face masks is a “smart” thing to do, but he is against a government-issued mandate. 

“It’s a smart and good idea to wear a mask. I would fully support companies and business owners requesting masks for people entering their stores,” Ivie said. “But I don’t believe it’s the government’s job to tell you how to live your life.”

Ivie, who spoke to the Deseret News after having a meeting with county health officials on Friday, said they are paying close attention to the spike in cases, but don’t see a need to take as drastic of an action like Salt Lake and Summit counties are doing to require masks.

“We’re tracking it. We are concerned,” Ivie said, but noted that about 50% of Utah County’s intensive care unit hospital beds are in use, so “we still have plenty of hospital capacity in Utah County.” 

Additionally, Ivie said about 72% of the county’s COVID-19 cases come from a known contact, “so community spread is still relatively low compared to spread of new cases.” 

Ivie said he was the only county commissioner that listened in on Friday’s call with health department officials, so he couldn’t give any administrative direction on how the health department should proceed, but he doesn’t see a scenario in which Utah County would require masks. 

“They just have a different philosophy in Salt Lake County than I have,” Ivie said, “but that’s the beautiful part of these being local decisions, that your local leaders can make those. I’m not going to second-guess their decision. ... I view government mandates differently than the people in Salt Lake County, but I respect their decision.” 

Likewise, Davis County officials want to leave the decision in the hands of residents.

“At this time our guidance is for the public to wear masks and we’d like (residents) to follow that guidance, on their own, without a mandate,” said Trevor Warner, Davis County Health Department spokesman.

“Leaders are watching the data and want to make smart, data-informed decisions moving forward. The Davis County Commission and city mayors will be meeting with the health department next week to discuss this topic more,” he said.

Washington County — which has seen an ongoing surge in cases — is not currently considering a face mask requirement, said David Heaton, Southwest Utah Health Department spokesman.

“Data doesn’t support such a move in the four most rural counties. We continue to monitor Washington County daily regarding health care resource capacity, testing and case rates,” Heaton said.

“St. George isn’t requesting that masks become mandatory at this time. However, I do agree with our local medical experts about the importance of wearing masks in public and strongly urge all of our residents to ‘mask up.’ If we want our economy to bounce back sooner as opposed to later, wearing a mask in public is a very easy and essential step toward that goal,” Mayor Jon Pike said in a statement.

San Juan County, which at one point in the pandemic had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases, is seeing its cases stabilize.

“Our number of total current active cases has been declining gradually over the past few weeks. We are not currently considering any mask or face covering mandates, but we continue to encourage businesses and individuals to wear masks in any situation where maintaining social distancing may be difficult or unlikely,” San Juan County Health Department director Kirk Benge said.

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

  • Salt Lake County, 10,102; 739 hospitalized; 106 deaths.
  • Utah County, 3,675; 181 hospitalized; 22 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,425; 45 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 1,302; 92 hospitalized; 10 deaths.
  • Davis County, 1,036; 70 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 814; 63 hospitalized; 12 deaths.
  • Summit County, 480; 45 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 395; 43 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 394; 20 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 222; 12 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 127; 8 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 45; 2 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 33; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.

Contributing: Art Raymond