Summit County gets state permission to remain in ‘orange’ phase but will ease some business restrictions (updated)
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the state’s approval of Summit County’s exemption request and the County Council’s approval of the new public health order.
As Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday moved to further relax coronavirus-fighting restrictions in much of Utah, Summit County received permission from state officials to maintain heightened measures for an additional week.
The exemption allows the county to remain in the “orange,” moderate-risk phase of the governor’s pandemic response plan when most of the state transitions to the “yellow,” low-risk phase Saturday. Other areas that have been hit hard by the coronavirus such as Wasatch County and Salt Lake City were also allowed to stay at the orange level.
County Health Department officials say that retaining the more rigorous measures is necessary to guard against another spike in COVID-19 cases even as some community members have pushed for easing restrictions more rapidly.
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Rich Bullough, Summit County’s health director, said part of the rationale for continuing to move slowly in spite of encouraging trends is that the full health picture of the county lifting its stay-at-home mandate on May 1 is not yet available. In the early stages of the pandemic, the county had one of the highest per-capita rates of infection in the country, but the growth rate slowed in April as residents were ordered to remain in their homes except for essential purposes.
Bullough on Wednesday anticipated it would take another week or two to determine whether the economic reopening so far has caused a meaningful increase in virus transmission. Officials have said a dramatic spike in cases could lead to stricter measures like the stay-at-home order being reinstated.
Doug Clyde, Summit County Council chair, said during a public meeting Thursday that the county is moving as fast as “science will allow.”
“I don’t want to allow anybody to think that we are just languishing here, waiting for a better opportunity or waiting for something to improve,” he said.
As the county remains in the moderate-risk phase, constraints on many businesses will nonetheless be loosened under a new public health order the County Council approved Thursday.
Starting Saturday, most businesses will be required only to comply with the orange phase-level restrictions outlined in the governor’s recovery plan, many of which are less rigid than those the county has mandated during the first two weeks of May.
Phil Bondurant, deputy county health director, said the new order simplifies the restrictions and is partly a result of feedback from the community.
“It shows that we are constantly not only analyzing data but listening to our public,” he said.
The eased mandate does not apply across the board, however.
Businesses in five sectors must continue to follow restrictions that go beyond the orange-level guidelines: food service, third-party food and grocery delivery, indoor recreation facilities, arts and entertainment, and lodging. Restaurants are still required to limit tables to groups of six as opposed to the 10 allowed in the governor’s plan, for instance, while gyms must cap the number of patrons allowed inside at one per 100 square feet of floor space.
Bondurant said those business types were singled out because they continue to represent a greater threat to public health.
Under the new county order, gatherings of more than 20 people are still prohibited. In a departure from the previous mandate, however, organizations are allowed to seek permission to exceed that limit, though they are required to demonstrate how they would mitigate the health risk of a larger gathering.
The exemption allowing the county to remain in the moderate-risk level, approved by the governor and the state Department of Health, is for one week, less than the two-week period the county initially sought. County officials said Thursday that a two-week exemption would have allowed them to gather more health data before determining how to move forward.
They are required to reevaluate the order May 21 and would need an OK from the state to extend it. It is slated to expire May 22 at 11:59 p.m.
A potential influx of visitors is one risk factor that continues to worry county officials. Bullough said people coming into the county from other areas for reasons other than work could contribute to a surge in cases and chip away at the progress so far toward slowing the virus.
“We remain concerned about that,” Bullough said.
If public health trends remain positive, however, the county could join the rest of the state in the low-risk phase when the order approved Thursday expires. It’s unclear whether enhanced restrictions would again be imposed on higher-risk businesses in such a move.
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“We’re kind of turning the corner … and it’s now time to maybe put out the welcome mat in a careful and thoughtful manner,” said Bill Malone, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau.”