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Utah's governor pushes back on rumors and misinformation in COVID-19 pandemic

Governor COVID-19 news conference
Posted at 2:46 PM, Mar 20, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert pushed back on rumors and misinformation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including ordering two local health departments to back off plans to ban gatherings of 10 or more people.

At a lengthy news conference on Friday, the governor said what the Utah Department of Health proposed was a recommendation that people not gather in groups of 10 or more. But there was a miscommunication among health agencies, which led Salt Lake County Health and Utah County Department of Health to issue orders making it a misdemeanor crime.

"We have families that are bigger than 10 for heaven’s sake!" the governor said.

He insisted it was a recommendation and believed Utahns would use "common sense" as the novel coronavirus pandemic continued. The orders by the local health departments led to immediate public pushback after FOX 13 and others reported on it.

Gov. Herbert said he expected "the people of Utah, would, in fact, use good judgment as far as how to apply this recommendation of gatherings with 10 or less. Not that this was going to become some kind of a police state and they were going to be prosecuted."

The governor also shot down rumors that the Utah National Guard would enforce curfews or that state and local governments were closing.

"There is no intent at the present time to have any kind of curfew or quarantine or lock people up. We want people to have as normal of a life as they can possibly have under this unique situation," he said.

The governor spoke with business leaders about what they were doing to mitigate economic impacts that are being felt right now. Derek Miller, the head of the Salt Lake Chamber and a member of the governor's economic recovery task force, told FOX 13 they are seeing unemployment claims spike.

"It’s not surprising. They’re spiking in a week’s time about the same level that we saw going into the great recession, over a week’s time," he said. "You can guess what the industries are. We know tourism, hospitality and food service is being hurt the most."

Miller said plans are being implemented to help Utahns weather the storm. Utah's Department of Workforce Services urged people to sign up for unemployment and noted there are still a lot of sectors across Utah in desperate need of workers now.

"What we have to do, all of us, is build a bridge from early March to perhaps late May, whenever we find ourselves able to exit this unusual period," said Harris Simmons, the CEO of Zions Bancorporation.

Some business and industry leaders touted things they are doing to make life easier for those struggling. Zions Bank said it was deferring loan payments up to 90 days for businesses in good standing. AT&T said it would not shut off phones and would waive late payment fees for those impacted by COVID-19.

Kenny Kimball, the president of Smith's Food & Drug, said they are doing what they can to ensure food and supplies are stocked. He praised people who are being thoughtful and kind to their clerks, warehouse workers and other associates who are working through some very difficult times.

"We’re making adjustments every day to take care of our customers and associates. We’ve made adjustments like temporary hours starting Sunday. We’re adjusting our hours, we’ll open from 8am to 8pm. There’s really two reasons: to make sure our stores are clean and make sure there’s time to get them stocked," he said.

The hardest hit industry is Utah's restaurant industry. The governor and Utah Department of Health have prohibited dine-in options as a way to prevent large gatherings and the spread of coronavirus.

Simon Shaner, the president of Mountain West Brands, which owns a number of Utah restaurants, said people can still show their support. They've created websites like supportsaltlakedining.com and curbsideutah.com that tell people who is open and serving take-out food.

"Now is the time -- if you have a favorite restaurant that you want to see survive this crisis -- go there today, go there tomorrow, eat as many meals as you possibly can at that restaurant in order to support the workers and business owners," he said.

The governor said he would like to explore whether it would be possible in the future to allow restaurants and theaters to open up with more steps taken to social distancing. He didn't commit to it, but said it was an idea worth looking into.

Gov. Herbert insisted the pandemic is temporary and Utahns will emerge on the other side of it for the better. He called for a weekend of prayer and service. Whether religious or not, he said people should help the vulnerable and needy. The governor also called on Utah's wealthy to give more to help the needy.

"This is a short term situation. The long term outlook is very bright for Utah," he said. "And we need to focus on the horizon."