SALT LAKE CITY — In a statewide address to the people of Utah, Governor Gary Herbert announced a new state of emergency for COVID-19 that includes a statewide mask mandate, limits on social gatherings and a hold on extracurricular activities in schools.
The address came late Sunday after an emergency alert was sent out by the state to every cell phone in Utah. The state has recorded thousands of new cases of the virus in the past week, with the death toll climbing and hospitals nearing capacity.
"The stakes are high. Lives are at risk as COVID-19 cases surge and we report record hospitalizations and new deaths day-after-day. Our hospitals are full. This threatens patients who rely on hospital care — for everything from COVID-19 to emergencies like heart attacks, strokes, surgeries, and trauma. We must work together to keep infections low until a vaccine is available," the governor said.
Gov. Herbert announced the new public health orders, which go into effect at 1pm Monday, will include:
- A statewide mask mandate that requires people to wear masks in public, within 6-feet of someone they do not live with. The mandate is enforceable in all business settings, with signage requirements. Businesses that fail to do so will be subject to fines.
- Casual social gatherings will be limited to household-only until Nov. 23.
- All extracurricular school activities — including intramural events — are on hold for the duration of the order. The only exception is college football games or high school championship games that are willing to follow testing and crowd size restrictions outlined in the public health order.
- Students at college campuses across Utah will be required to be tested for COVID-19 weekly. FOX 13 first reported on the plan on Friday, which will include deployment of rapid tests that can deliver results in 15 minutes.
- The Utah National Guard will be deployed to help with more contact tracing to get a handle on the spread of the virus in communities and quarantine people.
Violations of the public orders can bring fines up to $10,000 per incident, and will be enforced by health officials and law enforcement. They will expire on Nov. 23 unless extended by Gov. Herbert.
The move comes as Utah's political leaders have faced increasing pressure to do something as COVID-19 cases surge. The governor has been heavily criticized by some public health workers, even has he has defended the state's response as a balance of "lives and livelihoods," between health and the economy.
"I think this is a good first step. I see this as the governor acknowledging we have to do something now," said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases specialist at Intermountain Healthcare. "If you look at our case rates over the past 2-4 weeks and now you look at our hospitalizations going up and continuing to rise over the course of the weeks, you really have to do something. I think this is a great recognition of the fact that he’s moving forward and he’s recognizing that listen, we have to do something as a community if we want to change the path that we’re on."
Dr. Stenehjem said "we're full" when it comes to their intensive care units, which are relied upon to treat some COVID-19 cases. Patients have been moved over to other units to care for them.
"We are at a point where we are not going to be able to accommodate more and more patients," he said.
The new orders carry more requirements for businesses, but do not close them. Bars will be closed at 10pm each night, per the order. There are also no additional restrictions on public schools, said Dr. Sydnee Dickson, the state schools superintendent.
"This is not a mandate about closing schools, so this is really looking at that ecosystem outside of schools," she told FOX 13 on Sunday night. "Clubs, activities, things that happen in the community and trying to stop the spread there where it seems to be coming into the schools from extracurricular activities."
Those extracurricular activities will be halted for the time being. Health officials have said the spread is largely being driven by people ages 14-24 who are largely compliant with health regulations on school campuses, but then go out and gather with friends or family, unmasked and un-distanced and spread the virus from there.
"We must all remain vigilant until a vaccine is widely available," Gov. Herbert said. "But we cannot wait upon a vaccine, knowing the havoc that this pandemic has wreaked on families, schools and businesses. We must do more, and we must do it now. That is why I’ve issued these critical orders and mandates. But there is no legislation or executive order that can mandate civility, respect and basic consideration for others. This is about so much more than just mandates. This is about personal responsibility."
Read the new public health order here: