Summit County joins much of the rest of the state in ‘yellow phase’ of pandemic response (updated)

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The Summit County Courthouse.
Park Record file photo

Summit County on Thursday moved to further ease restrictions on gatherings and businesses, joining much of the rest of Utah in the so-called “yellow phase” of the coronavirus pandemic response that allows groups of up to 50 people to gather but maintains social distancing and sanitization guidelines.

A new county public health order went into effect Friday that adopts Gov. Gary Herbert’s reopening guidelines and abandons the enhanced measures for high-risk industries like food service and lodging that were included in the last order.

In addition to allowing private gatherings of up to 50 people, the yellow phase offers a potential path forward for the events that mark summertime in Summit County like outdoor concerts and rodeos. Formal organizations like businesses, churches or local governments may hold events of more than 50 people if they abide by the governor’s guidelines like tracking attendance, ensuring social distancing and increasing hygienic protocols.

The order makes the governor’s recommendations the law of the land in Summit County and directs law enforcement personnel to use discretion while enforcing it.

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It also removes restrictions that had remained on saunas, hot tubs and locker rooms, allowing all businesses to operate fully if in compliance with the governor’s guidelines. Team and club sports are also allowed.

While the order doesn’t restore normalcy in the midst of the pandemic, it does allow some elements of pre-coronavirus life to return. Restaurants are still required to keep tables 6 feet apart, for example, but up to 10 people may share a meal, preferably from the same household. Concerts may go forward, though organizers must maintain social distance among attendees and prevent congregating, among other restrictions. Faith services of any size may be held, as long as social distance is kept between people of different households.

Masks or face coverings, however, still are to be worn in public, though it is not illegal to opt against wearing one. Everyone in a health care setting is required by law to wear a face covering, as are employees of businesses who are unable to maintain 6 feet of separation from others. But the governor’s order stops short of requiring everyone to wear a mask, instead urging it as a “strong recommendation.”

Summit County Councilor Kim Carson, however, had stronger words, asking people to “think of their elders” and other at-risk individuals when deciding whether to wear a mask.

“Unfortunately, there’s been too many cases of people not exhibiting person responsibility, so I hope people begin to take this a little bit more seriously as we begin to open up,” Carson said. “Please consider wearing the mask — don’t consider wearing the mask — just wear ‘em. And hopefully we can keep our numbers down.”

Officials characterized the step down to the yellow phase as a shift from government regulation to personal responsibility in the fight against COVID-19, and said it was made possible by recent positive trends in local health data.

“For this to succeed, literally it is up to us,” Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said. “We don’t want to go back to orange.”

Officials have said the Health Department does not have the capacity to inspect each of the more-than 3,000 businesses operating in the county, indicating that responsibility lies in part with residents to patronize businesses that are complying with the order and to report those that are not.

Under the new order, formal organizations do not need approval from the Health Department to hold events that gather more than 50 people, though they are required to follow the public health guidelines.

Summit County, along with neighboring Wasatch County, Salt Lake City and three other municipalities, had requested permission in the middle of the month to retain more stringent protocols after most of the rest of the state progressed to the yellow phase May 16.

Local officials said the extension was needed to give the county more time to examine the effects that allowing businesses to reopen had on the prevalence of COVID-19. Herbert granted a one-week extension that expired Friday.

Bullough said a decision to return to a more stringent set of restrictions in the event of a spike in cases would require the governor’s approval.

“The reason we are going yellow is because our data … are really favorable right now,” he said. “I do believe that if we see a significant turn in the indicators that we’re following, the governor will be supportive of us going back to orange.”

Bullough has said the indicators include the hospital utilization rate, the growth rate of COVID-19 in the community and the capacity and efficacy of monitoring and detecting the disease.

The county was an early hotspot of the disease and retains one of the highest infection rates per capita in the state. As of May 18, the county had 41 active cases, according to county data, a figure derived from the total number of confirmed cases minus the number of recovered cases. Officials are defining a recovered case as one diagnosed more than three weeks prior not resulting in death.

The county has consistently pushed for more stringent measures to fight the disease, noting that the initial outbreak was related to travel. The last order noted a handful of “high-risk” industries that are related to tourism, including lodging and food service.

Much of the area’s economy is based on tourism and officials have indicated the importance of establishing the county as a safe destination to keep intact the crucial winter ski season.

Businesses have slowly begun to reopen as public health data has indicated the growth of the disease has slowed dramatically in the area and officials have eased restrictions. With the number of people seeking tests dwindling, the county is pursuing a new testing strategy to ensure it has the data to make informed public health decisions moving forward.

The new order was adopted on the combined authority of the Summit County Council, County Manager Tom Fisher and Bullough and is set to remain in place through Sept. 1. Officials indicated it would be reviewed periodically; other orders have been examined every two weeks. It may be appealed to the Summit County Board of Health.

It directs local law enforcement agencies to ensure compliance with the order, but to use discretion in citing and prosecuting those who violate it.

“(T)he purpose of this Order is to protect individuals’ health and not to hold them criminally liable,” it states.

Summit County has established a hotline to answer questions from the community, which can be reached at 435-333-0050. It is staffed Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the process by which organizations can hold events with more than 50 people.

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