State leaders plead again for mask wearing; daily average cases top 600

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Fears about how the state’s COVID-19 numbers are growing despite government pleas for mask wearing were confirmed Thursday, as officials announced that more than 600 people per day are testing positive in Utah.

Hospital officials have been warning for weeks that the state could soon run out of hospital beds if the trend continues.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert joined with State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn, Chief Medical Officer at the University of Utah Tom Miller, and Director of Utah State Superintendents Association Lexi Cunningham to address the COVID-19 pandemic at a press conference Thursday morning.

The press conference came a day after more than 100 Utah County residents gathered at a public meeting to support Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee’s proposal to have the county health director ask state officials for a “compassionate exemption” from the mask mandate issued last week by Herbert.

Most of those in attendance were not following social distancing guidelines or wearing face coverings. Attendees booed after the commissioners opted to push the vote to a later date because of health concerns.

Within the first minute of the meeting, two of the three commissioners — Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie — voted in favor of postponing the meeting, while Bill Lee voted against it.

According to Dunn, the state’s rolling average is 619 cases per day, and the positivity rate is 10.4%. Herbert’s goal is to get the rolling average to 500 or below by Aug. 1.

Herbert again encouraged Utahns to wear masks out of respect and concern for fellow citizens, not because the government is compelling them to.

“Masks are our medicine right now,” Miller said. “Put your masks on, let’s get through this, and then you can take those masks off,” he said.

Herbert said he would much rather look at mask-wearing as voluntary instead of as a statewide mandate. “I’ve never been a one size fits all kind of guy,” he said. There are some counties in Utah that are in the green phase and he doesn’t see a statewide mandate necessary. Rather, he wants to leave it up to each county and local officials, Herbert said.

When asked what he thought about what happened in Provo at the county building on Wednesday, he said it was a foolish action, but it’s understood that people have different points of view, and those need to be respected in a moderate tone.

Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started, Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Provo, Utah. The group protesting against face masks being required in schools removed the social distancing tape on the chairs and filled the Utah County Commission room to overflowing, prompting Commissioner Tanner Ainge to call for a vote to adjourn the meeting. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Echoing the words of Miller, Herbert said “Let’s not shame each other, let’s not blame each other.”

He also addressed schools in the state opening in the fall. “It’s imperative that we open our schools,” Herbert said. Although Herbert has ordered all students, teachers, staff and visitors at schools to wear masks, there are some exceptions to be expected such as young children, people with disabilities that make it awkward or difficult to wear a mask, and while eating.

Herbert and Cunningham said the reason everyone is required to wear masks in schools is to create the safest environment at the schools as possible.

Herbert said Utah has the lowest fatality rate in the nation and is economically doing much better than other states. “I am very confident and optimistic,” he said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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