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NEW YORK (AP) — Utah is experiencing a spike in new COVID-19 cases about a month after many businesses were allowed to reopen, leading the state’s epidemiologist to issue a renewed plea Wednesday for people to maintain social distancing and exercise caution.
Recent protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have brought hundreds of people together in downtown Salt Lake City, adding to concerns about a rise in cases in the coming days and weeks.
The state recorded an average of about 200 cases a day last week — by far the highest weekly average since the pandemic began, state figures show.
The average rate of positive tests had crept up to 4.6% as of Monday, after hovering closer to 4.3% in May. The most recently available seven-day rate of positive tests jumped to 5.2% for the week of May 19.
State health officials acknowledge that the caseload appears to be growing across the state, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn told reporters Wednesday.
“I want to be very clear today that we have increased spread of COVID-19 in Utah,” Dunn said. “This past week we’ve had a sharp spike in cases, and it’s not explained easily by a single outbreak or increase in testing,”
Easing up on restrictions does not mean the risk of spread has decreased and masks are not a replacement for social distancing, Dunn said.
State Rep. Joel Briscoe, a Democrat, called the recent statistics “disturbing” and said he’s worried they’re a reflection of people valuing economic interests over the lives of more vulnerable populations.
“Maybe losing a few grandparents is worth it if people don’t lose their jobs; maybe that’s what some people are saying,” he said.
Briscoe said the state’s rush to reopen could lead to more difficult decisions such as possibly re-instituting closures for businesses and schools.
But state leaders appear set on moving forward with the re-openings.
A committee of Utah’s GOP-controlled Legislature that was formed to address the pandemic recommended Tuesday that the state take the next step in loosening restrictions. The move is pending the approval of Gov. Gary Herbert, also a Republican. It wasn’t immediately clear what new measures would be put in place.
Since the state first reopened hair salons, gyms, restaurants and bars on May 1, the number of reported cases has doubled from nearly 5,000 to over 10,000. Utah further relaxed coronavirus-related restrictions across much of the state on May 14, allowing team sports to resume, pools to open and groups of up to 50 people to gather.
There have been at least 117 deaths from COVID-19 in Utah, according to state figures.
The rise in cases comes as protesters gather nightly in Salt Lake City over the death of Floyd, a black man who died after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
Utah Health Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said any large gathering or protest in which people don’t practice social distancing could be dangerous.
“There is certainly the potential that an environment like that could be ripe for infecting people, and we’ll just have to wait and see if the cases and the contact tracing of those cases bear that out,” he said.
Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.