State moves Summit County to ‘moderate’ risk level, ending distancing rules
Bars and restaurants can increase capacity, though some are wary
Restaurant tables, barstools and treadmills can be moved closer together in Summit County after Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday announced that the county had been placed in the “moderate” level on the state’s coronavirus transmission index.
That designation removes social distancing requirements that mandate 6 feet between different parties in most situations, allowing many business owners to increase the number of people allowed inside their establishments.
It remains to be seen, however, how businesses will respond to the relaxed rules while many members of the public remain wary of COVID-19 and staff members aren’t fully vaccinated.
Spring breakers can now pack bars shoulder-to-shoulder, but there is still a statewide mask mandate in place, and patrons are required to wear a mask unless actively eating or drinking.
That mandate appears likely to expire April 10, however, setting up another choice for businesses navigating the new stage of the pandemic.
Phil Bondurant, Summit County’s deputy health director, said the change in the risk level was news to him when the governor announced it, but that the county expected the move to come soon.
He said public health guidelines that were requirements on Wednesday have now become strong recommendations with no enforcement component.
“Our businesses, our restaurants, they’re going to have to do what they feel is best for them, their customers, their staff and the best means of keeping people as safe as possible,” he said. “… I think if there’s ever a community that’s smart and understands what COVID is and what it isn’t and how COVID is transmitted, it’s Summit County.”
Bondurant said county officials are discussing whether to seek to extend the county’s mask mandate if the state’s mandate ends. Cox is expected to sign legislation passed by the state Legislature that would end the mandate April 10, though he had not done so as of Friday morning.
Bondurant said the county’s decision would be driven by similar data as the state uses to determine transmission level: the average number of new cases in the past two weeks, the percent of COVID tests that are positive and statewide intensive care unit capacity.
The state divides counties into three levels of transmission risk: high, moderate and low. Salt Lake County has been in the moderate stage since March 4, as has Wasatch County. Only five counties remain in the high transmission level, none of which border Summit County.
Cortney Johanson, managing partner of the Main Street establishments Spur Bar & Grill and 350 Main Brasserie, said that the county’s move to the moderate transmission level might not impact her businesses much, at least at first.
“We may add a table here and there, but for the most part, for the comfort level of customers, we’ll try to respect that for the next month or so,” she said.
She said that the Spur has been as busy as safety restrictions allow, seeing lines day and night. At 350 Main, Johanson said the locals who make up the core business in the spring and summer months have expressed wariness about COVID and that she would operate with those concerns in mind.
“We want to hang back. We’ve got a very good local following, a lot of older people, and we want to respect everybody in this thing,” she said. “We don’t want to be on the forefront of immediately packing bars again.”
Johanson said that many tourists seem to be less concerned than locals about public health measures like distancing guidelines, a point echoed by Junior Richard, general manager of The Cabin bar and music venue on Main Street.
“It’s been incredibly difficult for bars during spring break as most out-of-town guests coming to eat or drink are not as concerned about COVID,” Richard said.
He said he was looking forward to the mask mandate lifting so his employees would no longer be on the front lines enforcing the public health order.
“It has been incredibly difficult to control at times, but overall our customers have been very happy to comply in order to see music,” he said.
Johanson, on the other hand, said she wasn’t sure how her businesses would navigate a mask mandate removal, indicating they may continue to require masks for employees.
She said she’d likely see how other businesses were handling it while deciding.
There is now no distancing requirement for workout facilities or venues like movie theaters or concert halls, either. Attendees who remove masks to eat or drink, however, are required to maintain 6 feet of distance from other parties.
Bondurant said the Health Department would continue to serve as a resource for businesses looking for advice about how to operate safely as they transition into a new phase of operations.
“I would suspect things are going to be different, and rightfully so,” he said. “COVID is different than it was just six weeks ago.”
For Richard, the prospect of a summer with receding pandemic worries seemed enticing.
“We feel it’s our business to bring people the joy of music, a short escape from the gloom, and some hope for a normal world,” he said. “We are ready to fill the dance floor as soon as we get to low transmission.”
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The CDC recommends vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings in Summit County, a step backward precipitated by the rise in cases tied to the more-transmissible Delta variant.