SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert took to the airwaves Monday to emphasize new recommendations from public health officials for safe holiday gatherings in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At an unusual Monday press conference, the governor stressed that his executive order of Nov. 8, which mandated compliance with state guidelines on social distancing and maximum attendance at public gatherings, will expire at midnight. Of those directives, only the statewide mask mandate, which had been imposed indefinitely, is still in effect.
But Herbert said the current “challenging times” should not keep Utahns from adopting an attitude of gratitude and observing a “happy, but safe Thanksgiving.”
State Officials are urging Utahns to access and observe what are termed “General Guidelines for Holiday Gatherings” on the state’s COVID-19 website, which can be found at https://coronavirus.utah.gov/
Rich Saunders, the acting head of Utah’s Department of Health, emphasized that those guidelines stop short of the governor’s previous mandate that social gatherings be limited to members of a single household. The state’s retreat from that mandate came after Herbert held contentious meetings late last week with conservative lawmakers who viewed that limitation as constitutional overreach and an intrusion on Utahns’ civil rights.
The governor’s press conference came in the midst of some good news in the statewide battle against the coronavirus. Health officials reported 2,244 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, a significant decrease from the average of 3,295 cases per day reported over the weekend.
That decrease may, however, be the result of reduced testing on Sunday, when only 7,462 Utahns were tested compared to an average of nearly 15,000 COVID-19 tests per day administered in the previous 48 hours.
During Monday’s press conference, Saunders expressed cautious optimism that Utahns would voluntarily follow health recommendations listed on the state website in the absence of official mandates.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful and isolating for many people,” according to the state website’s introductory text. “Regrettably, the situation is worsening and small household gatherings are an unfortunate contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases…
“One of the reason that COVID-19 continues to spread at social gatherings may be from the misconception that small social gatherings with people close to you – such as friends, neighbors or extended family – are safe options. However, that is not necessarily the case if you aren’t taking precautions.”
The precautions being recommended by Utah Department of Health officials run to six pages when printed from the state website. Those guidelines cover everything including guest list planning, meal preparation, seating arrangements and clean-up efforts. The website even offers somewhat impractical suggestions on how to ventilate holiday gatherings.
If the average northern Utah family were to take all those suggestions to heart, Thanksgiving dinner could be an occasion at which its members are seated at separate tables, wear masks and gloves, have limited conversation and eat off paper plates with the windows open. State officials also helpfully suggest that the whole event should be over as quickly as possible.
Specifically, the state’s guidelines suggest that guest lists for holiday gatherings be kept as small as possible, with virtual linkage encouraged for those who cannot, or should not, attend in person.
Those gatherings should also be kept short and sweet, according to state officials. The state website warns: “Being within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more greatly increases the risk of getting sick.”
The website also contends that outdoor holiday gatherings are less risky than those held indoors.
“If you can host an outdoor gathering, you should (do so) …” the website advises. “If eating indoors, open the windows and turn on a fan to increase air circulation.”
The state website also recommends that hosts get flu shots prior to their gatherings and request that their guests do the same.
The website also lists guidelines for the preparation and serving of food items.
Those include limiting the number of people entering food preparation areas; avoiding potlucks dishes or buffet-style serving; having one (masked and gloved) person serve all food items to avoid multiple people touching utensils; and using disposable plates, cups and utensils.
Finally, the website repeatedly cautions that hosts and guests at holiday gatherings should wear face coverings, both indoors and outdoors, whenever they are not actively eating or drinking.