SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert will not loosen COVID-19 restrictions as schools re-open.
"We have a lot on our plate right now with school opening and that’s going to be a challenge to how we handle that statewide, too. I think we’re in a good place right now, and we’ll just let things percolate for a little bit," the governor said in an interview Tuesday with FOX 13.
- Extended interview:
The state has relied on a color-coded system to explain health guidelines and risk levels. Salt Lake City is currently in an "orange" or "moderate risk." Most of the state remains at "yellow" or "lower risk." Some rural counties are at a "green" or "new normal." But in the interview, Gov. Herbert acknowledged it has not translated as well as he would have liked to Utahns about what is expected. He defended his decision to loosen restrictions around Memorial Day, which led to a spike in cases.
"Based on the information we had at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. I think the mistake we made was how we color coded and the definition of the color-coding. We had red and that was maximum, then moderate risk orange, limited risk yellow and green. People saw 'Ah, less risk.' Meaning less risk to catch the virus," he said. "We should have talked in terms of less restriction, but not less risk even in yellow where we have moderate restriction at all, there’s still risk involved. I think people let their guard down and what they should have been doing is taking it extra cautious and careful as we start to interact more and more with people."
Gov. Herbert said he may, however, to allow the state of emergency for COVID-19 to expire on August 20. It would require the Utah State Legislature to approve an extension.
"I don’t know that we need to continue it on," he said. "I think we need to make sure we have the ability to put protocols that are appropriate, which we really have in place now."
Those health guidelines would continue under his executive orders. The governor said he has been working with lawmakers to revise them and ensure people are clear on what is expected as the state seeks to emerge from the pandemic. On Tuesday, Utah reported 362 new cases of COVID-19 and a rolling average of 399 cases. It marks another day of declining cases.
"We’re not out of the woods. But I do like the trajectory," Gov. Herbert said.
The governor continued to urge Utahns to be physically distant, practice good hygiene and wear face coverings. But on the topic of face masks, the governor continued to threaten a mandate if there was a surge -- but had no plans to implement one immediately. He revised policies to allow local governments to enact their own mask mandates, but said some areas of Utah may not need one.
"I think to mandate the wearing of a mask in some of our rural areas where social distance is just the norm probably is not warranted," Gov. Herbert said. "In schools, where we have close quarters, we’re mandating across the state. In the school system you have to wear a mask."
School re-opening plans have been submitted to the Utah State Board of Education and Utah's Department of Health. The governor said some have been modified to ensure a safer environment for students, teachers, faculty and staff. Asked if he could guarantee a safe classroom environment, Gov. Herbert replied:
"What I think we’re doing is managing the risk. There’s no way to eliminate entirely the risk factor for anything in life, particularly during a pandemic. So if anyone’s looking for zero risk when we open up our schools, that isn’t going to happen. But we can minimize the risk and maximize the opportunity."
The governor said he is trying to balance the concerns of everybody as schools re-open. Children are less likely to contract COVID-19, but teachers are more vulnerable to contracting it. Plans are in place if cases begin to surge as a result of schools re-opening, he said.
"So finding that right balance is a challenging thing," he said.
Gov. Herbert said his COVID-19 Unified Command continues to monitor the state and work to address cases. He expressed some concern about recent incidents involving parties and crowded bars.
"So we monitor that stuff every day and see what we need to do something better. All the time to make sure we have hospital capacity, make sure we don’t overwhelm the health care system looking towards that day when we have a vaccine. I was on the phone yesterday with [Vice-President Mike Pence]. They’re hopeful a vaccine will emerge by the end of this year," he said. "I’ve talked to our health care experts here, Intermountain Healthcare, the University of Utah, etc. They believe by the end of the first quarter of 2021 that we should have a vaccine available. That’s the one thing we’re trying to do, tread water to get back to normalcy."
The governor said he has tried to find a balance between lives and livelihoods, noting that Utah has a low mortality rate and has managed to maintain a lower unemployment rate than other states. He told FOX 13 he's been tested twice for COVID-19 now and both tests have returned negative results. He has also tested negative for COVID antibodies.
"I like the direction we’re going as a state. I like the balanced approach we’re taking that awards protecting people’s health and the economy, not closed down," he said. "I think people like that. I don’t think people like the heavy hand of government too much on their daily activities. So I think we’ve approached that in a wise way but we still have a long ways to go to get out of this."