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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, Provo and Orem are returning to “orange” on Utah’s color-coded coronavirus map beginning Thursday morning, state officials announced Tuesday.
It’s the first time restrictions were tightened anywhere in Utah since the COVID-19 restrictions were first put in place in mid-March and after the state began loosening restrictions in May. Tuesday’s announcement also comes after Salt Lake City became the last community in the state to move to yellow on the scale.
“We've got a little bit of a situation on our hands that we needed to address. We concluded that an immediate change needed to occur to some color restrictions, which would be the most prudent intervention for this time,” said Rich Saunders, Utah Department of Health’s interim executive director, during Tuesday’s briefing with reporters.
Provo and Orem reached the threshold to return to orange. Saunders explained there are three key factors that can lead to the tightening of restrictions. One is when the 14-day rolling average exceeding 35 new daily cases per 100,000 people. When statewide hospital utilization is above 68% or when the seven-day percentage rate of positive tests reaches 20% or higher, that could also trigger the tightening of restrictions, he continued.
In this case, Saunders pointed to the 14-day rolling average and positive test percentage as the largest factors that went into deciding Provo and Orem should move back to orange. He made the announcement after Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, listed off some staggering statistics about Utah County and the two cities that will move to orange.
Utah County’s total cases expanded by 81% and totaled about 42% of the state’s entire new cases over the past week, Dunn said. That includes a positive case rate of 23% countywide, while the rest of the state was 10%. She added the latter statistic indicates that there are more COVID-19 cases that haven’t been reported in the county.
Provo and Orem accounted for over 57% of the county's cases over the past week.
“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.
An area can return to the yellow phase when that seven-day percentage rate drops to 10%, or green when it returns to 5%, Saunders said. Case trends must stabilize or decline under a 14-day period with no more than a three-day increase in case rates within that period and the most recent three days showing a plateau or decline in cases, he added.
Other indicators are used to evaluate an area’s situation, which includes testing turnaround and contact tracing times.
It’s been months since the two Utah County communities were last in orange, and the state’s guidelines for the color-coded system have changed many times over the past few months. So here’s what it means for the two cities moving to orange.
What moving back to orange entails
Some of this was explained during Tuesday’s press briefing. For example, Saunders said team sporting events will be allowed to continue in Provo and Orem but without spectators, even though orange guidelines normally would restrict team sports. It means BYU football’s home opener this weekend can be played as scheduled, but without fans in the stands.
Gov. Gary Herbert also acknowledged that public gathering limits drop from a 50-person limit to 20 in a switch from yellow to orange — although the state guidelines say that number can increase “when the data shows we do not need as much social distancing.” The state guidelines, which were last updated on Sept. 4, also encourage people to limit “close contact” with people who live inside the same home.
“In-house dining will be impacted to some extent — buffets, so there is some impact which is negative, and we understand that. That’s why we’re so anxious to work with the local people to get us back to yellow,” Herbert added, during Tuesday’s press briefing.
Other recommendations are found within Utah’s guidelines for businesses and the general public, which defines orange as “somewhat restrictive” compared to yellow, which is “very little restrictions, some extra precautions” and green, which is “little, if any, restrictions, some extra precautions.”
Some parts of the guidelines don’t change regardless of whether the location is in red, orange, yellow or green. For example, anyone who doesn’t feel well is encouraged to stay home at all times. Face coverings — with some limited exemptions — and physical distancing are typically encouraged at all levels because there is still a level of risk anywhere people can spread the virus.
Hours after Provo and Orem were moved back under orange restrictions, Utah County issued a mandatory mask mandate for everyone in the county — even those simply under yellow restrictions — when in a public place where social distancing is not feasible.
Here are some other recommendations from the document:
- There aren’t many K-12 school differences between yellow and orange. Schools can remain open for in-person instruction under both guidelines and that only changes if a location is moved to red. It’s advised that children should not have in-person playdates that would include close contact with other children — and that children shouldn’t be allowed on public playgrounds. The yellow phase advises that children should try to physically distance from other children while in public spaces, including on playgrounds.
- Most driver’s education courses don’t change between yellow and orange. One change is within the cap to the number of participants inside one vehicle at a time. It’s two participants and an instructor in orange places and a cap of three participants in yellow places.
- University campuses can remain open for some in-person classes with common areas in residence halls closed. It’s worth noting that the presidents of BYU and Utah Valley University — in Provo and Orem — sent out a letter to students Tuesday that stated they may consider returning to online-only courses by October if COVID-19 conditions don’t improve over the next two weeks.
- Restaurants are encouraged to use takeout, curbside pickup, or delivery options with dine-in allowed “with extreme caution” under orange guidelines compared to being open. Many other guidelines remain the same.
- Retail businesses are recommended to only allow one customer or employee per 100 square feet. Businesses are also recommended to place a limit on products that are selling out quickly, so it decreases long lines forming at stores. It’s also recommended that stores consider discouraging people from bringing their children or strollers to stores with them.
- Cultural arts and entertainment events are recommended to provide management guidelines, which would allow for an event to allow more than 20 people. That’s required for 50 people under yellow. People not from the same home must be 6 feet apart at all times, including when seated. Event holders must also try to collect contact information for people at all non-seated events to help contact tracing. The section that states there is a maximum of 6,000 people at outdoor events, which is allowed under yellow, is removed for orange.
- Fitness centers are recommended to be closed under orange restrictions but that’s not required. Centers are told to have people physically distance and disinfect often when open, much like is recommended under yellow. One change is that the physical distance recommendation under orange is 10 feet instead of 6 feet. Staff must also disinfect all equipment after every time it is used.
- Hotels should keep rooms vacant 48 hours after check-out and prior to cleaning, when possible; that’s a guideline that exists in orange but not yellow. Fewer or no housekeeping services are also recommended under orange guidelines.
- There aren't many changes in religious services from yellow to orange. Services can continue with people who don’t live in the same home sitting at least 6 feet apart from each other. Masks and good hand hygiene are recommended for handling any food that another person will eat, and group meals outside of religious services aren’t recommended for either yellow or orange.
- Childcare recommendations also don’t change much, if at all, between yellow and orange. The state recommends groups of 20 or fewer children. Facility employees must report any confirmed cases to their local health department for further instructions.
The full list of recommendations under the red, orange, yellow and green restriction levels can be found on the state’s website.