SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he's optimistic about Utah's COVID-19 transmission trends but he's not willing to completely remove state coronavirus guidelines, such as the state's mask mandate, until more Utahns are vaccinated.
The governor made his comments after he was asked about the growing pressure to ease restrictions inside and outside of the state. Cox said he understood the frustrations but weighed those against the risks associated with reversing course.
The state's seven-day running average of new cases has dropped 78% between Jan. 1 and Thursday. The seven-day average was 558 new cases Thursday, which is the lowest the statistic has been since last September. At the same time, Cox announced the state is on track to open up vaccine eligibility to all Utah adults by as early as April.
"We're in a really, really, really great spot. I'd hate to do something that sets us back when we're this close, but, again, I don't want these restrictions in place one day longer than is absolutely necessary," he said.
The pressure Cox is facing about the state's COVID-19 restrictions begins in the Utah State Capitol. For example, the state's House of Representatives passed a pandemic "endgame" bill that would lift the state's mask mandate and other pandemic-related guidelines issued by the state and Utah Department of Health. It's still waiting for Senate approval. The Senate did pass SB195, which limits powers during public health emergencies.
Cox argued Thursday that the bills may not even be necessary, especially because most counties in the state are no longer in "high" transmission locations. He added the data indicates the remaining 11 counties in that category may be able to move down in the coming weeks.
Once a county reaches the "moderate" transmission level, the mask mandate remains in place but there isn't a public gathering limit. That means sports venues and theaters can have non-concession side-by-side seating if people are wearing masks.
The governor said there were "a lot of good things'' in the bill but questioned the timing of it. That's why he said he would look at the final bill that's on his desk before he makes a decision to sign or veto it, should the Senate pass it.
"I hate that we're having fights again right now. We're so close to the end of this," Cox said. "We're all so close. The end is in sight."
Then there's the out-of-state pressure. Mississippi and Texas made news earlier this week when their governors announced they were lifting coronavirus restrictions, including crowd sizes and mask recommendations. Texas' order goes into effect next week.
"Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility; it's just that now state mandates are no longer needed," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday.
But Cox also urged caution about what other states have decided. He blew off the remarks from outside states as words from "people who want to run for president" doing "things you can do to get attention." Cox added that he didn't know if those measures would lead to spikes in new cases, noting that it's still difficult to project when exact trends will occur after a year of dealing with the coronavirus.
Instead, the governor narrowed his attention to what he and his staff could do on the issue — and that's vaccines.
"I do know what we have are vaccines, and what I do know is that these vaccines work. And what I do know is that if we get more people vaccinated, then people won't die and then we won't have to wear masks at all," he said. "That's what I'm really excited about, and the sooner we get there the better."
Cox added that he believed Utah has found a balance that's allowed the state to keep many aspects of the economy open while mitigating COVID-19 deaths.
He pointed out that the number of deaths per capita in Utah due to COVID-19 is much lower than most states, including Texas. That's why we've had, at times, fewer restrictions than most U.S. states.
"I think we're doing it the right way. … We haven't been perfect. We've done a great job but, yeah, we're going to feel pressure," Cox said. "Everyone's going to feel pressure to open up quickly."
While that's the endgame he wants, it's something he said can only happen when enough Utahns have been vaccinated.
"We're in this boat and we're trying to get to the shore. And we're in a place now where we can see the shore. And if you're a healthy swimmer, you can jump out and you can make it; but we have some not healthy swimmers," Cox said, attributing an analogy made by Utah Department of Health executive director Rich Saunders. "We would really like to get them vaccinated. That's really important."
Cox also defended masks as "the least intrusive" measure a state can have, in terms of keeping aspects of the economy open.
Meanwhile, public health officials were more nervous about the out-of-state decisions. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state's epidemiologist, said that public health experts become concerned when other states make decisions that could potentially lead to an uptick in new cases in places outside of those states.
It's worth noting that state and local tourism experts both pinpointed Texas as one of the leading places people outside of Utah were coming from to visit Utah's state and national parks over the past year.
"As we know, this virus does not respect boundaries — even international boundaries," Dunn said. "We're only as safe as our weakest state. So if there's spread going on in Texas or another state, it certainly puts Utahns more at risk for spread."
She added that's why it is important for Utahns to keep working to ensure new COVID-19 cases remain low, which means continuing to wear masks in public and physically distancing when possible.
Dunn also said that it's important that Utahns get vaccinated when they get the opportunity. That's especially true with the possibility of new coronavirus variants being introduced that are more likely to spread faster.