SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert announced a series of changes to Utah's public health orders on COVID-19, impacting schools and bars.
The latest public health orders being issued Thursday by the Utah Department of Health will do away with a ban on alcohol sales past 10 p.m. that bars had sued over. They also modify quarantine policies for schools and implement new policies in all K-12 schools.
Students can return to classroom learning if they're negative for COVID-19 and were masked, despite another student being COVID-positive. UDOH Executive Director Rich Saunders said data has shown the risk of transmission in a classroom setting is low, if everyone is masked.
Saunders also announced that all teachers and school staffers who want a COVID-19 test can get one whenever they want, regardless of symptoms. The state was also implementing "test to stay" and "test to play" policies for schools.
If there's an outbreak in a school, students who do not exhibit symptoms can be tested and return to the classroom. But it will no longer shut things down.
"Students who test negative can continue with in-person learning," Saunders said. "Those who test positive or those who choose not to be tested will move to virtual learning for 10 days."
Similar policies are already in place for athletics and extra-curricular activities, dubbed "test to play." Masks and physical distancing would still be enforced.
Similarly, all college students will need to be tested before they can return to class next month. The state did abandon plans to test them every two weeks because of logistical issues.
Gov. Herbert said he would keep in place the statewide mask mandate. The state also moved Rich County to a higher risk and restriction level because its COVID-19 cases had been climbing.
But the state will end a 10 p.m. "last call" for alcohol sales. The governor defended the move as a way to keep people from gathering, but bar owners sued and were seeking a restraining order to block the state from enforcing it. In a deal with hospitality groups, Gov. Herbert said the state would end it — so long as bars and restaurants enforce physical distancing, mask-wearing (except for when people are eating or drinking) and require customers to stay seated when drinking and not walk around a bar or restaurant.
"This was such a blessing today," said Kirk Bengtzen, the owner of Twist bar and one of those who sued the state. "It’s long overdue."
Bengtzen said he wanted to see the new health order before any lawsuit would be dropped, but he said it would allow them to get back to business.
"We can get back employing people and let them start making some money, especially right before the holidays," he said in an interview with FOX 13.
The COVID-19 vaccine is already being distributed to health care workers. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, confirmed that vaccine distribution timelines could start speeding up with more doses becoming available. The general public could expect to see it by March at the earliest and July at the latest.
"We are building the infrastructure to make sure that we can handle, if we do get more doses more quickly than anticipated," she said. "So that we can get through the phases quicker."
Gov. Herbert said that while the vaccine is good news, Utahns must still limit their gatherings to avoid overwhelming hospitals (that are already at maximum capacity) and continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines for the next few months.
"We are seeing now some daylight at the end of the tunnel with the arrival of the vaccine, I think is encouraging for all of us," he told reporters Thursday. "But I would caution us all to make sure we understand this tunnel is still long."