Health officials lift restrictions on number of people allowed at private gatherings
Utah is lifting restrictions on social gatherings ahead of the Thanksgiving weekend despite continued high rates of COVID-19 transmission and hospitalizations, Gov. Gary Herbert announced on Monday.
There were 545 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Utah on Monday, and referral center ICU beds reached 91.9% occupancy statewide, according to state data. Health officials have urged residents not to attend large Thanksgiving gatherings.
The new rule changes come after a week in which Utah added 22,838 coronavirus cases, a 9.2% increase from the previous week's 20,906 cases. The state ranked No. 10 among the states where coronavirus was spreading the fastest last week, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
Richard Saunders, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said during a Monday press conference that Herbert's two-week emergency order, which was issued Nov. 8 and mandated mask-wearing, will expire Monday at midnight. Utah will then re-implement the tiered transmission index it had used before the order.
This index will function largely as it did before, Saunders said. For instance, health officials will label counties as high, moderate or low transmission based on the spread of COVID-19 within communities, and masks will still be required in all public settings.
However, health officials are now "trying not to prescribe how many people should be in your individual home," Saunders said. "We want to leave that to your discretion."
He also said that starting next week, all participants in high school extracurricular activities must be tested every other week. This includes coaches, trainers and staff members.
Additionally, starting with the new health order, businesses can allow quarantined employees to return to work earlier than was previously allowed. For instance, if an employee is exposed to COVID-19 but tests negative on day seven of their quarantine, they can return to work at the business owner's discretion.
"These restrictions or guidelines... are designed to balance the individual liberties and our collective well-being. They're aimed to protect lives and livelihoods," he said.
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However, the new changes don't mean health officials aren't encouraging best practices. Saunders said it's still recommended that people gather only with those in their own household.
If families gather with other households, they should wear masks and practice social distancing. In high transmission areas, it's recommended that 10 or fewer people gather, while in low transmission areas, 50 or fewer people might be acceptable.
Additionally, Saunders said 26 out of 29 Utah counties will be considered "high transmission" as of Monday at midnight.
Only Daggett, Piute and Rich counties will be placed in the low transmission category, he said.
'Be thankful. Be careful.'
During Monday's press conference, Herbert reminded people that meeting with those they don't live with creates higher risk.
"That's just the harsh reality and what the data shows us," he said. "The smaller number that you have that you gather with, the safer you will be."
He also encouraged families to avoid potluck dinners for Thanksgiving; instead, one person should cook and serve all the food while wearing a mask.
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Herbert asked people to "stay the course," especially now that promising vaccines are on the horizon. He predicted that Utah will see its first opportunities to inoculate people in the next two to three weeks, and he's hopeful that a vaccine will be widely available by March or April.
"I think for the first time in a long while we see a little daylight at the end of the tunnel," he said. "Be thankful. Be careful."
State epidemiologist Angela Dunn then gave the most recent state COVID-19 numbers. Utah's seven day rolling average of new cases is now at 3,349, a measure that "continues to increase" throughout the state.
However, Utah's rolling day percent positivity is now at 23.6%, a measure that is "starting to see some stabilization" as a result of increased testing, she said.
Dunn also said Utah is now in a position that everyone who wants to be tested can be. Schedule a test at testutah.com.
There have been over 179,000 reported virus cases in Utah and 797 known deaths related to the virus, according to state data.
Kaitlyn Bancroft reports on faith, health, education, crime and under-served communities for The Spectrum & Daily News, a USA TODAY Network newsroom in St. George, Utah. You can reach her at KBancroft@thespectrum.com, or follow her on Twitter @katbancroft.