Utah closing public schools to prevent spread of coronavirus

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a news conference in the state's Emergency Operations Center on Thursday, March 12, addressing the current state of COVID-19 in Utah. Representatives from the Utah System of Higher Education, the Utah Board of Education, Utah Jazz, local health authorities and Utah Department of Health were also present. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP)— Utah closed most public school functions on Monday, March 16, to reduce the risk of spreading the new coronavirus, though doors will stay open to help families who need things like tutoring and meals, state officials said Friday.

Gov. Gary Herbert said the plan is for learning to move online or through packets sent home, with each district devising its own plans soon. The step is considered preventative in Utah, which has confirmed a handful of cases caught outside the state and hasn’t had any deaths.

“We think this is prudent. This is based on good science. This is based on what we’ve learned from other areas of the country and around the world,” Herbert said.

Even though Utah doesn’t have community spread, its likely only a matter of time, said Dr. Kurt Hegmann, director of the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah.

Hegmann urged people to keep their children away from large gatherings and at safe distances from others during the break.

About 667,000 children go to public schools in Utah, according to state figures.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is leading the state’s coronavirus task force, urged residents to stay calm and insisted the move doesn’t mean there’s a crisis.

“This doesn’t mean you have to go pillage the shelves at your local store,” Cox said. “It doesn’t mean we have to fight over the last roll of toilet paper.”

He added that kids can still play video games with a friend if they’re not sick and cautioned that too much isolation can be bad for children.

“We’re not quarantining every child in the state of Utah,” Cox said. “We still want you to go on walks to the park. ... We’re just avoiding these mass gatherings that will hopefully prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

Other effects of the pandemic rippled through politics, religion and the courts.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temporarily suspended activities like ceremonial baptisms for dead ancestors at its temples worldwide, though ordinances like marriages can still be done by appointment in some locations. The faith has already suspended worship services and decided to hold its signature conference without attendees.

State courthouses will also be quiet: hearings considered nonessential were canceled, and those necessary to ensure the right to a fair and speedy trial were being held over video feed. Salt Lake City municipal courts were also taking steps to limit risk of spreading the virus, the newspaper reported.

Utah has a handful of cases of the new coronavirus, including Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.

For most people, it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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