SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns aren’t all that comfortable with going to church, school or sporting events as government leaders consider the next step in restoring the state to a new sense of normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sitting with a congregation in church, even with proper spacing, is too big of a risk for people in certain age groups, said American Fork resident Jaxon Peterson.

“Singing just seems like the perfect way to spread disease. That goes to sporting events, too. Cheering, applauding, booing, everything like that, the perfect ground for that, even at an outdoor venue,” said the 31-year-old father of two.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 52% of Utahns are comfortable with attending church services if appropriate social distance protocols are in place, while 46% are uncomfortable about going to church.

Some houses of worship in Utah opened their doors in mid-May after Gov. Gary Herbert eased restrictions for social distancing. Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state’s predominant religion, are headed back this month in groups of less than 100, meaning wards will have hold multiple meetings a day.

The poll also found that 51% of Utahns believe church services are important at this point in their lives, while 47% say it’s not important right now.

“I’m excited to go back to church,” said Betsy Parry, who lives in the tiny community of Altonah in Duchesne County. She said half of her Latter-day Saint ward will meet on alternating Sundays starting this week. A survey of ward members found them split about returning to the chapel, she said.

“The majority of those staying home are staying home because they don’t want to have to keep face masks on their children. They’re too little,” she said. “But it’s a whole different world out here. We social distance because we don’t live near anybody.”

Residents were evenly split at 49% on their comfort level for attending school in person, according to the survey.

“I guess that depends on the how the summer goes,” said Parry, who along with her husband, Allen, raised seven children. She said she would have probably kept her children home from school just to be on the safe side.

Utahns are even more uneasy about going to sporting events and movie theaters. The poll found 55% would be uncomfortable going to a ballgame and 53% feel that way about going to a theater.

Pro and college sports are working through plans to resume seasons this summer or start in the fall. Some theaters are open with limited seating.

At the same time, shopping at stores and malls, dining in restaurants and allowing children to use public playgrounds are activities that Utahns don’t mind doing. Two-thirds or nearly two-thirds are comfortable in those settings, the poll shows.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen surveyed 1,000 Utah registered voters from May 25-31. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

While Utahns think about what activities they’re comfortable or not comfortable doing as coronavirus cases and deaths rise, the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission has recommended Herbert move most of the state to a “smart green” risk phase on Friday.

State health officials, however, disagree, citing a “sharp spike” in the state’s COVID-19 cases during the past week.

Utah is and would remain in a state of emergency, and the lower risk level would not indicate that the state is back to normal, according to the commission created by the state Legislature. A “smart green” risk phase would encourage individuals to continue practicing social distancing and wearing a mask in public.

“We emphasize that green is not pre-pandemic,” said Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, commission co-chairman. “Green is a lighter risk level, but it is not a return to normal.”

While data is indicating Utah could potentially begin transitioning to a lower risk level responsibly, it does not apply to everyone, he said.

Holly Hammons, 45, of West Valley City, said it’s too early to move from the current “yellow” phase or low risk to “green” or “new normal” risk.

“I don’t think we should be going to green anytime soon. To me, green means it’s gone,” she said.

Hammons, 45, sees the data going the opposite direction. After weeks of 120 to 130 new COVID-19 cases a day, the past week jumped to 200 or 300 a day.

“It appears that there is no tolerance, there’s no ability from the general public to say we’re just going to do a complete lockdown until this goes away. No one’s going to be OK with that, apparently, so I guess we have to open up,” she said. “I guess we’re just making the choice that we understand more people are going to get sick.”

Hammons is among 35% of Utahns who think state officials are moving too quickly to ease restrictions, according to the poll. But the survey also found 43% say the government isn’t moving quickly enough, while 18% say it’s about right.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Wednesday she doesn’t recommend the state going to “green.” She noted that “sharp” spike in cases in the past week, adding the state knew loosening restrictions a three or four weeks ago would result in an increase. She attributed it to people being in close contact with each other indoors for a prolonged period of time.

“That environment is really conducive for the spread of COVID-19. As we start to open up parts of our economy and society, more people would be working or in social settings where that environment would be more likely,” Dunn said.

Peterson said the state must rely on infectious disease doctors and epidemiologists to help make those decisions.

“Of course, we want the economy go smoothly and we want people to work, and you don’t want to undo the last 2 12 months of struggle that we’ve had just by rushing into things,” he said.

Overall, coronavirus cases and deaths in Utah has been lower than many other states. Peterson said some states with far more restrictions have had more “drastic and saddening” outcomes.

View Comments

“Whatever the inconvenience that has happened over the last few months, ultimately we just need to be grateful the numbers are what they are and do our best to keep them that way,” he said.

The poll found that 66% of residents are concerned that they or someone they know will be infected with the virus, while 34% are not concerned.

But 82% are confident that they could receive appropriate medical care if they were to become sick. Another 16% are not confident about that.

According to the survey, 98% of Utahns say family health is important to them right now and 97% say economic health is important. The importance of family social interactions also rated high at 91%, while 77% say interacting with friends is important at this time in their lives.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.