School starts this week for Alpine, Provo and Nebo districts 01

A student exits the lobby at Mountain View High School in Orem while a statue of a bear sports a face mask after the first day of school for the Alpine School District on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Utah officials announced Tuesday that they will implement a public health order moving Provo and Orem from a “yellow” to “orange” restriction level amid a continuing surge in COVID-19 cases in Utah County.

The change will be effective beginning at 11:59 tonight.

Richard Saunders, interim executive director of Utah Department of Health, said the state Unified Command for Coronavirus Response met on Monday to look at “all the tools the government has” to manage the spread of COVID-19.

“We concluded that immediate change needed to occur to some color restrictions, which would be the most prudent intervention for this time,” Saunders said at a Tuesday press conference.

The announcement marks the first instance state officials have rolled back the color-coded restrictions outlined in Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Leads Together plan.

“This is the first time we’ve rolled backwards,” Herbert said.

Moving back to orangeDuring the orange, or “moderate level restriction” phase, social gatherings are limited to 20 people or fewer and residents are encouraged to “limit your close contact to people who live in your home and people who have been following the recommended physical distancing and hygiene guidelines.”

Additional restrictions during the orange phase include closing public playgrounds and recommending that restaurants “ask customers to use takeout, curbside pickup, or delivery options as much as you can” and only provide dine-in services “with extreme caution.”

Gyms and fitness centers are recommended to stay closed during the orange phase but can stay open if they “make sure everyone in the facility is physical distancing” and “clean and disinfect more often.”

Saunders said that team sports would only be allowed without spectators during the orange phase.

“The current guidelines of orange do not allow engagement of sports to occur, competitive sports,” he said. “However, with this exception, they will be able to continue, as I’ve stated, but with no spectators. And that measure is put in place so that we can help influence the spread in the right direction.”

Statewide trendsIn the span of a week, the statewide seven-day rolling daily case average increased from 522 to 857, according to Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. The statewide positive testing rate is 13.9%, up from 10.6% last week.

Utah has seen “significant case growth in 12 of our 13 local health districts,” according to Dunn, who said that, while the highest rates have been among 15-24-year-olds, there have been increases across all age groups in the past two weeks.

“And this is reflected in the increase of active COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state,” she said. “Today, we have 161 individuals hospitalized due to COVID-19. Last week at this time, we had only 115.”

Utah County driving growthUtah County, and specifically Provo and Orem, continues to be “the main driver” of COVID-19 case growth statewide, according to Dunn.

“Cases in Utah County grew by 81% in the last week, and they accounted for 42% of our state’s cases, despite only having 20% of the state’s population,” said Dunn, adding that the case rate in Utah County is 5.4 times greater than the rest of the state.

“Looking at specific areas in Utah County, Provo and Orem account for over 57% of Utah County’s cases last week, and in some areas of those two cities, you are between three and six times more likely to have COVID-19 than the rest of the state,” Dunn said.

The high positive testing rate in Utah County over the past week, 23%, has been driving the statewide increase in positive testing. Without including Utah County, the statewide positive testing rate is 10%, according to Dunn.

“This indicates that there is a lot of COVID-19 spread in Utah County, and we’re likely missing positive cases because individuals are not getting tested in Utah County,” the state epidemiologist said.

Saunders said there are three criteria state officials take into account when considering tightening restrictions in a city or county: case trends, statewide hospital utilization and positive testing rates.

Officials would move an area from yellow to orange, for example, if the seven-day average positive testing rate in that area exceeded 20%.

Saunders noted that the Utah County Commission is considering implementing a countywide mask mandate to address the surge in cases, a move in which he said he supported. Commissioner Tanner Ainge has said he would support a mask mandate while Commissioner Bill Lee said he was against a mandate.

“We’ve had great conversations with elected officials of Utah County and the local health department, and we understand that they’re also considering a countywide mask mandate,” he said. “And we’re encouraged by that discussion because we know that wearing masks influences, in a positive direction, the spread of the virus. We think it’s a good decision and we support that decision.”

Saunders said state officials have been “very conscientious of the economy and mental health and the general health of society” as they implement restrictions, adding that they base their decisions on “much discussion, professional input and careful consideration.”

“The economic impact of overwhelming the hospital networks is far worse than the impact of the temporary restrictions that we put in place,” he said.

Herbert said “intervention is needed” in Provo and Orem in order to prevent future restrictions in other parts of the county.

“And if we don’t do it, the unfortunate outcome of that will be orange being that category for all of Utah County,” the governor said. “And we don’t want that to happen.”

Provo and Orem respondProvo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi called the announcement about the restriction “disappointing news” but said it “can and should be served as a community rallying cry to more vigilantly follow health guidelines so we can quickly move back to yellow to protect our local economy from further damage.”

“Provo City now begins the task of determining the additional restrictions required by Governor Herbert’s directive and will be communicating these changes to our citizens,” Kaufusi said in a written statement.

“We are disappointed we are being taken back to the orange phase with the many restrictions that involves,” said Orem Mayor Richard Brunst.

Brunst said the move back to orange would require the city to close its playgrounds and would affect “group sizes, out-of-state travel, church groups and businesses.”

“It is important to understand that we are all accountable, young or old, we need to protect our residents,” the Orem mayor said. “This is very invasive in all parts of our life. Be responsible.”

Mary Ann Nielsen and Teri Bishop, lead signers on the Provo referendum against the Municipal Council’s mask mandate and who are seeking a court injunction on the same, say they will move forward.

“We are still planning to finish the referendum process,” Nielsen said. “We still want to make sure the Provo mandate gets stopped.”

Nielsen said they would start another statewide referendum and fight on a bigger scale if needed.

“The spikes are because of forced, mandatory testing,” Bishop said. “People are being forced to be tested. There are not that many being sick that are in the hospital. I’m not worried about the numbers.”

“This is overreaching government power,” Nielsen added.

They will have their petitions at the Pioneer Park on 500 W. Center St. in Provo from 9 a.m. to noon and 3-6 p.m. Saturday through Oct. 27 if people want to sign the petitions.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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