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Utah's governor lowers COVID-19 restriction levels, says more changes may be coming for schools

Posted at 12:02 PM, Sep 03, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — As anticipated, Governor Gary Herbert has granted requests to lower COVID-19 restriction levels.

As FOX 13 first reported on Wednesday, Salt Lake City and Sevier County had made requests to loosen their restrictions. Salt Lake City will move to "yellow" and join most of the state. Sevier County will move to "green" and join mostly rural counties. The moves will take effect Friday.

"Let me again just re-emphasize that moving from orange to yellow just means less restrictions. Not less risk," Gov. Herbert told reporters on Thursday.

But the announcement was welcomed by businesses. Abby Murtagh, the general manager of the Hilton Salt Lake City Center, said it meant more amenities for guests. The hotel chain already has stringent cleaning procedures in place.

"We cannot wait to welcome our guests back to our pool and our fitness (center), we have socially distanced the lounge furniture," she told FOX 13.

Derek Miller, the CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said the change was not only big for Salt Lake City but the entire state, economically. It meant more office workers could return to the central business district. He said it was thanks to Salt Lake City residents who practice physical distancing, good hygiene and wearing face coverings.

"People have been behaving responsibly," Miller said.

Salt Lake City's decision to move to yellow will have a positive impact on the state's overall economy, Miller told FOX 13.

"Salt Lake City is the center of commerce but it’s important that we now have the opportunity for all businesses to be open, again following health and safety protocols," he said.

Meanwhile, the state continues to prepare for any surge in cases. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said cases have risen slightly, but it's not attributable to one specific thing. She urged Utahns to get a flu shot this year.

"The symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can be quite similar with fever, fatigue, cough and other such symptoms. However, the fact that we have a flu vaccine really helps us to control the spread of flu," she said. "And COVID-19 is proving to be more deadly than the flu."

The novel coronavirus is also starting to impact schools, with both public and charter schools having to pivot their learning styles as COVID-19 outbreaks begin to happen. As of Thursday, Utah reported 26 outbreaks in schools with 140 cases statewide. Utah's Department of Health defines an outbreak as more than two people in a classroom, or 15 people or 10% of a school population, whichever comes first.

A recent report claimed Utah was last in the nation when it came to protections for teachers in the pandemic. Tami Pyfer, the governor's education adviser, questioned the criteria used in the survey but acknowledged they did have some areas to improve. She said teachers need to reach out to their local districts to make them aware of problems.

"The report did raise something about class sizes, this is something we’ve known about for a long time with our young population that we have large class sizes," Pyfer said.

Gov. Herbert said the state has shipped out personal protective equipment and tried to adapt back-to-school plans. Still, he said, there were plans being made to add additional protections for teachers and staff.

"As we have infection rates, if they increase, will be in how we socially distance. Having classes cut in half so there’s more room for social distancing," he said, referencing districts who have gone "online only" or "A/B days" where students attend class every other day.

In his news conference, the governor pushed back against online conspiracy theories that claimed COVID-19 deaths were being inflated. State Medical Examiner Dr. Erik Christensen went over how COVID-related deaths are investigated and said the 414 deaths reported in Utah so far are accurate.

The governor also pleaded with Utahns to continue to follow health guidelines as Labor Day approaches. That includes essential physical distancing (staying at least 6-feet from others), good hygiene, and wearing face coverings.

Watch the news conference here: