SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that the state recommends that all mass gatherings be limited to groups of 100 or fewer healthy people.
This recommendation applies to events like church meetings, concerts and conferences, he said, and will be in effect for two weeks. At that point, the recommendation will be reevaluated.
“Today we stopped making decisions based on just the hope that things will get better,” Herbert said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “We’re basing it on the assumption that things possibly could get worse and the spread (of COVID-19) could continue.”
Though this restriction is currently a recommendation, local health departments will be working with local municipalities, and will pull permits if necessary, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at the press conference.
Those who are sick or who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, should avoid gatherings larger than 20 people, he said. Individuals over the age of 60 and those with compromised immune systems fall in this category.
Herbert said he believed most understand that Utah’s situation has changed significantly in the past 24 hours, as two Jazz players have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during that time, and major events have been canceled or have decided to limit public attendance.
Utah has five residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, including two Jazz players, Cox said. These are all travel-related cases, and there is no evidence yet for community spread of the disease, said Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
“Research has shown in other countries and across the world that preemptive public health measures are more effective than reactive health measures,” Cox said. “Being proactive will not only help protect our own health, but also the health and safety of our neighbors, family and friends and those who are most vulnerable to this disease.”
These are recommendations of the Utah Coronavirus Task Force, which is composed of members with a breadth of expertise and experience, Herbert said. Though the group originally planned to meet once a week, it has met five times within the past week, he said.
“I want to be very clear. We’re not making these decisions today because things are really bad,” Cox said. “We’re making these decisions today, to make sure that things don’t get really bad. ... That’s an important message for our people to hear.”
Schools open for now This recommendation does not apply to K-12 schools, Herbert said. Decisions on school closures will be made at the local level, as school districts consult with their local health departments, he said.
Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of K-12 schools, also spoke at the press conference, encouraging schools to explore staggered start and end times, and staggered times for lunch and recess, in order to limit the number of children congregating in the same space.
“While many of our schools are able to implement distance learning through digital means, we’re not capable of a full transition statewide for K-12 at this time,” Dickson said, “but we’re working on it, and we’re working on it rapidly.”
Dickson said that assemblies, games and other school events fall within the governor’s recommendations to limit large gatherings.
School leaders are carefully considering the impact school closures would have on families, she said, given that many do not have easy access to childcare if parents must continue to work.
Universities move online, some technical colleges stay in session
Higher education institutions, however, are moving to online classes.
Weber State University announced Wednesday that classes will be suspended starting Friday, March 13, through Tuesday, March 17. The university will move to online courses starting Wednesday, March 18, according to a university press release. The classes will continue online through the rest of spring semester.
All Weber State events are canceled until March 30, and all university-sponsored travel, whether international or domestic, is canceled through April 20, the release says. Faculty, staff and hourly employees will continue to work on campus, and facilities will remain open, but people are encouraged to stay home if sick.
“Students should remain off campus as much as possible,” the release says.
Davis Technical College is not moving courses online, as the hands-on nature of its curriculum makes it difficult to deploy through distance education, according to a press release. However, the college is limiting gatherings, encouraging videoconferencing when possible and “taking a supportive approach” toward student and staff absences, the release says.
Ogden-Weber Technical College has asked all students with symptoms similar to COVID-19 to stay home, according to a Facebook post. Students will be offered a leave of absence at no charge, the post says, and are asked to submit an online form requesting leave.
Working from home encouraged
Herbert asked employers to allow employees to work from home and telecommute when possible.
“We’d like you to start doing that immediately,” Herbert said. “We applaud all the businesses who’ve taken steps to help their employees work from home, and we encourage more to do so.”
However, Lt. Gov. Cox clarified that the recommendation to limit gatherings does not mean that businesses larger than 100 people need to close their doors, he said.
Herbert also encouraged employers to “have some tolerance and understanding” of employees who are ill.
“It’s better for them to lose a couple of days of work than coming and infecting your employees, and having ... 50 people miss work for a couple of weeks,” he said.
Status of COVID-19 testing
As of 10:40 a.m. Thursday, the Utah Public Health Laboratory has tested 136 people for COVID-19, Cox said, and tests were in process Thursday for 24 more individuals.
In addition, 18 Utah residents were tested by the CDC prior to the Utah Public Health Laboratory being certified to conduct tests, he said.
The first three of Utah’s five COVID-19 cases — which occurred in Davis County, the Weber-Morgan health district, and Summit County — were confirmed in Utah. The tests for the two Jazz players were confirmed in Oklahoma.
The Utah Public Health Lab also confirmed yesterday a positive case of someone traveling in Utah, Cox said. State and local health departments are conducting the same contact tracing in that case as they have with confirmed local cases, he said.
“In the coming days, we’ll be able to increase testing significantly, up to around 500 individuals,” Cox said.
ARUP at University of Utah recently became able to conduct testing and completed tests for 100 individuals on Wednesday alone. Intermountain Healthcare is in the process of becoming certified to conduct tests, he said.
When fully scaled, Utah will be able to test 1,000 individuals per day, Cox said, and drive-through testing “is underway and expanding.”
Anyone who is worried that they have COVID-19 should contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707.