SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Deeply conservative Utah began a major shift in fighting the coronavirus pandemic Monday, implementing a statewide mask mandate for the first time and planning a dramatic increase in testing.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said the timing right after the presidential race was called for Democrat Joe Biden wasn’t political, but rather an essential move to avoid disaster with a surge already threatening to overwhelm hospitals ahead of the holiday season.
“Politics has gotten in the way of doing the right things in the right way,” he said. “Both sides of the aisle have used this as a political tool and message to advocate for their position.”
Biden is imploring people to wear masks, a stark contrast to President Donald Trump largely eschewing them. Trump won the state with 58% of the vote, though Utah Republicans tend to be put off by his brash style.
State authorities have repeatedly prevailed upon people to wear masks, but resisted requiring them even as case counts began breaking records this fall. Utah joins more than 30 other states that have implemented statewide mask orders since the pandemic began.
Leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature are backing the new rules, which also put most school sports on hold and ban social gatherings outside the household for two weeks, he said. Herbert didn’t impose any new restrictions on businesses. He cited data that says most people are catching the virus during personal gatherings, where they tend to be more lax about social distancing and mask wearing.
The restrictions came at the recommendation of the White House and the Centers for Disease Control, Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson said in a tweet. White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield met with the governor last week.
These steps have the potential to help slow the spread of the virus but likely won’t have an impact on hospitalizations for at least two to three weeks, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Utah Health.
Pavia said he is grateful the governor is implementing new restrictions but fears that some people will “continue to exploit loopholes.”
The public will likely have to take precautions against the virus for several months before a vaccine can be widely distributed, he said.
“I worry we are always looking for a quick fix and we are tired,” Pavia said. “The virus is not tired.”
Still, dissent remains. The sheriff over the conservative second-largest county in the state, Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, didn’t change his stance of refusing to enforce a mask mandate. The county is home to two universities, and deputies recently broke up a Halloween party where thousands of people danced and crowd surfed, almost none wearing masks. The party was ended because they didn’t have a permit, not because of the lack of face coverings, said Sgt. Spencer Cannon, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
“It’s not that were not concerned about this issue, we are, it’s just that Sheriff Smith believes criminal enforcement is not the way,” he said.
The new order also changes little for anti-mask activists such as Eric Moustous, founder of the group Utah Business Revival. “We’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue to do events,” he said.
Enforcement would likely come through local health departments, Herbert said. Businesses that fail to require masks are subject to fines, and people who organize large mask-less gatherings could also be slapped with fines of up to $10,000.
Utah is also planning a dramatic ramp up in testing - university students will be tested weekly, and eventually expanded to younger students. Utah tested about 9,000 people on Monday. With federal help, the state could be testing 20,000 to 30,000 people a day, Herbert said.
Most public schools are in session face-to-face, and the governor stopped short of heeding calls from the state’s largest teachers union to move all students to remote learning. Data indicates that students typically aren’t catching the virus in schools, but rather in extracurricular activities such as sports, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.
Re-starting those will necessitate a robust testing program, similar to professional sports, Herbert said.
For most people, the new 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 illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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