SALT LAKE CITY — The state has issued new public health orders that continue a mask mandate, while loosening some restrictions on gatherings.
Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders announced the new orders at a news conference on Monday. It's been two weeks since Governor Gary Herbert issued a series of executive orders that cracked down on social gatherings and mandated face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
So far, Utah has seen a slight stabilization in percent positivity, which can determine how rampant the virus is in the community.
"This measure is starting to see some stabilization as a result of the increased testing across the state," said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist.
Utah's Department of Health announced it will now allow those who want a COVID-19 test to get one, regardless of symptoms, through TestUtah.com, the Silicon Slopes intiative the state has now taken over.
Because cases continue to surge, Saunders said the Utah Department of Health would keep the mask mandate in place. Restrictions on businesses would still be in place, including a "last call" for restaurants and bars to serve alcohol at 10pm. But Gov. Herbert is lifting the restrictions on gatherings from household-only to less than 10.
The governor acknowledged on Monday he has faced pushback over that order from people who insist the state cannot dictate what people do in their homes. That has come largely from members of the Utah State Legislature, who have bristled at some of the state's restrictions.
The health department did modify the quarantine restrictions for business employees who are exposed to COVID-19 but test negative. They must now only be out for seven days, not 14 as originally recommended and they remain symptom free.
Extra-curricular activities in schools can resume with symptom monitoring and regular testing of participants in staff. The Utah High School Activities Association announced plans to resume some winter activities with new testing in place.
All but three Utah counties (which happen to be the the most sparsely populated counties) are in the highest level of risk and restrictions, a sign that COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in communities. While the governor did decide to raise the number of people who can gather, he and health officials urged Utahns to celebrate Thanksgiving with only those they live with.
"We still recommend gathering with only those in your household, that is the safest way," said Saunders.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a statement Monday she disagreed with the governor's action.
"This weakened, new order sends a message to people that gathering in homes for the holiday is safer than it was two weeks ago, when the data show it absolutely is not," she said. "I call on the State Legislature and the Governor to take bold action to protect our health by making data-driven policy decisions, not succumb to the fatigue of this pandemic for the sake of a holiday."
Hospitals in Utah continue to approach maximum capacity in their intensive care units almost daily. On Monday, the 16 hospitals best equipped to handle COVID-19 in the state reported their ICUs were now nearly 92% full. Gov. Herbert told FOX 13 there were discussions of how to handle any spike in cases as a result of Thanksgiving.
"There’s always contingency plans whether it’s Thanksgiving or not," he said. "The hospitals have put in place what they need to do for critical care and the ability to triage. Those who have the most serious ailments go to the front of the line and others, in fact, go to the end of the line."
A vaccine will start arriving in Utah within the next few weeks. But Gov. Herbert warned it would be months before it is widely available. So he urged Utahns to continue to practice physical distancing (staying at least 6-feet from others), good hand hygiene, limiting social gatherings and wearing face coverings.
"The next four, five months is going to be critical," he said, adding: "But we can’t say 'Ah, we got the vaccine now we can quit doing these other things.' It’s going to take us until the summer of next year."
Read the new public health order here: