SALT LAKE CITY — New restrictions brought on by a startling increase in COVID-19 cases have gone into effect.
Utah is now under a statewide mask mandate; people are restricted from in-person socializing with anyone outside their household; extra-curricular activities are halted (outdoor football games will be allowed to finish up); bars must stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.; and college students will soon be required to take a COVID-19 test weekly.
Violations can bring fines and citations and are enforceable. Governor Gary Herbert said local law enforcement and local health departments can enforce the public health orders issued by Utah's Department of Health.
"I really do believe that if every Utahn adheres to the principles that are outlined by Governor Herbert, we will see a decrease in our cases," Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, said at a news conference on Monday. "And we need that urgently."
Hospitals report reaching a crisis point. Their intensive care units are full and health care workers are overwhelmed. Things have gotten so bad, Gov. Herbert said, that Utah's hospitals that act as regional care centers have stopped accepting patients from Nevada, Idaho and Montana. Colorado has stopped accepting Utah patients from the Four Corners area because of a similar surge in that state.
Gov. Herbert instituted the restrictions in a Sunday night address to the people of Utah that was preceded by an emergency alert sent to millions of cell phones across the state. In recent weeks, Utah has seen thousands of new COVID-19 cases, as well as an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.
But the governor insisted the decision was not driven by politics, but data. Asked by FOX 13 if he waited until after Election Day, the governor insisted it was not a political decision.
"We’re going to try to find the right policy based on the data and the information we have that’s in the best interest in protecting health and welfare of people of Utah, as well as making sure the economy continues to function. Both are important," he said.
Reaction to the governor's new state of emergency and public health orders was somewhat mixed.
"What the governor is asking us to do is absolutely the right thing right now," said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who has criticized the governor in the past for a lack of action on COVID-19 restrictions.
Mayor Wilson said she has already told county workers to begin tele-working from home again if they are able to. She said she also supported local law enforcement enforcing egregious violations.
"We have, for the first time, used the word enforcement and I think the word alone is sending a signal to the community that this is not a choice anymore," she told FOX 13. "We have to abide by some restrictions now, in our best interest."
Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement Monday he absolutely supported expanded COVID-19 testing but signaled he was not in favor of any business restrictions.
"COVID-19 hospitalizations are concerning, and hospitals inform us they are on the brink of being overwhelmed. According to research from the CDC, testing is how I believe we will get through this, and it is the best sustainable path forward. It is why I have been encouraging all universities to test as many students as possible and make rapid tests available to teachers," he said. "The government can’t solve this problem. I urge us all to be as responsible as we are at work or school in our personal life; it will help reduce the spread. Together, we can avoid overwhelming healthcare workers and the healthcare system."
The health orders are in effect until Nov. 23. FOX 13 is told that if COVID-19 cases do not start dropping by then, more strict measures could be considered alongside expanding the existing orders. The governor's office was also deliberating how to handle the Thanksgiving holiday where families could gather (even in defiance of public health orders) triggering another wave of infections.
On Monday afternoon, the orders were amendmed to allow food sales at bars after the "new last call," and to clarify that private studios like dance or karate could continue to operate so long as they can guarantee physical distancing and enforce mask wearing.
Watch the governor's news conference here: