Utah governor: No shutdown plan despite spread of virus

FILE - In this April 15, 2020, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask during a news conference at Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City. State leaders said Wednesday, June 17, 2020, that updated plans intended to help drive economic recovery won't compromise the health of residents even though the state is experiencing a multi-week rise in cases. Herbert said the increase in cases was somewhat expected because many businesses were allowed to reopen starting in May and restrictions on how many people can gather together have been loosened. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gov. Gary Herbert says he has no plans to shutdown the economy and appears unwilling to bow to mounting pressure to make face masks mandatory despite a warning from the state’s epidemiologist that a complete shutdown might be imminent if Utah can’t stop a prolonged spike of coronavirus cases.

Herbert tweeted Monday night that he appreciated the analysis by epidemiologist Angela Dunn that outlined the severity of the surge in COVID-19, but made clear he’s not considering going backwards from a plan he rolled out in early May that gradually allowed businesses, gyms, salons and pools to reopen.

“We will work to stem this tide, but I have no plans to shut down Utah’s economy,” tweeted the Republican governor, who isn’t seeking reelection after holding the post since 2009.

Utah is one of nearly two dozen states dealing with rising case rates following reopenings. The infection rate and daily case count has doubled in the last month, state figures show.

Dunn recommended that the state reimpose some restrictions on businesses and group gatherings unless it lowers it’s weekly average to 200 cases per day by July 1. The state has averaged 478 cases per day over the last week following a steady increase in positive rates over the last month, state figures show.

Dunn also recommended mandating face coverings in her memo, which was made public Monday.

On Tuesday, the Democratic mayors of Utah’s largest city and county urged Herbert to implement a statewide requirement while a coalition of the state’s largest health care providers launched a new campaign touting the necessity to use face masks to slow the spread of the virus.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson formally asked Herbert to grant her authority to make face coverings mandatory in the county at retail and commercial establishments, restaurants while waiting to be seated and served and at community gatherings.

In response, the governor’s office said in a statement sent by spokeswoman Brooke Scheffler that Herbert thinks a mask requirement could create “divisive enforcement issues,” but said county health departments can send data and analysis to the state health department to make their case.

“Gov. Herbert strongly supports mask wearing in public when social distancing is not possible because it is a sign of respect for the health and well being of others,” the statement said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted that masks are estimated to be 75% to 82% effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Requiring they be worn in public statewide could help us turn the tide and save lives,” she said.

Washington became the latest state Tuesday to require facial coverings in public settings, joining others states with similar rules including California, Michigan, New York, Maine, Delaware and Maryland.

Herbert’s office said Dunn’s recommendations are among several being considered.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death. Utah has 163 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

Herbert has pointed to his decision to gradually lift restrictions allowing restaurants, gyms, pools and salons to reopen as a key reason why Utah has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. He has said the state can begin to recover economically without risking people’s health.

The surge in cases isn’t being driven by any major outbreak or attributed to more testing alone, leading Dunn to believe community spread is rising as people spend more time together.

“We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown,” Dunn wrote in the memo released by the state Department of Health. “This might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak.”

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