(KUTV) — Gov. Gary Herbert announced changes to the state's color-coded coronavirus recovery plan to help reopen all schools in fall, as he and others pleaded with Utahns to wear masks.
"It's imperative we open our schools," Herbert said. "Nobody wants anything other than a safe environment... We can not afford to close our schools."
Herbert announced the modifications, specifically the orange phase, so schools in Salt Lake City can reopen during the 2020-2021 academic year.
Salt Lake City is the only area in Utah that is still in the orange phase, which forces schools to close its doors. The modification will allow the schools to open until the city moves into the yellow phase.
This comes as school districts are scrambling to create plans that align with public health guidelines for the upcoming academic year.
Dr. Lexi Cunningham of the Utah State Superintendents Association said every plan will address movement, duration, proximity, group size, respiratory output, touch and congestion. The plans can be found here.
Herbert announced last week that everyone who works in, attends or visits a K-12 school will be required to wear a face covering. Exceptions include:
Last night, a session, before the Utah County Commission, was to discuss a proposed “compassionate mask exemption“ for some children once school is back in session.Commissioner Bill Lee floated the exemption so some kids, with certain conditions, could go mask free. A large group of people with few wearing masks, led to the abrupt end of an anti-mask mandate meeting in Utah County.
"We must respect differing views and opinions. We all have the same goal and we want economy to get back to normal," Herbert said about the meeting.
That same day, parents and students rallied at the Salt Lake Board of Education to demand that students return to the classroom this fall.
Herbert says he is open to other changes and that the full order will be released soon. He also said masks will be provided for all students.
The governor and other health and state leaders pleaded with Utahns to wear masks.
"We encourage you to do the right thing so that we don't have to tell you what to do," Herbert said about mask mandates, adding. "I much prefer doing it on a voluntary basis."
Dr. Tom Miller, chief medical officer with University of Utah Health, addressed rumors circulating that masks do not prevent the spread of a virus or restrict oxygen.
"For 140 years we've known masks prevent the spread of diseases and that's why surgeons wear them," he said.
Miller reiterated a warning Utahns have heard before: hospitals are near capacity.
"Masks are our medicine now until we have a vaccine," he said. "I'm pleading with you to put your mask on, and put it on now."
This comes after reports that state leaders are preparing a million dollar campaign to encourage Utahns to wear masks, practice social distancing and make other changes to help stop the spread of COVID-19 Utahpolicy.com reported.
Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson met with Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday afternoon about the pandemic.
There is currently no statewide mask mandate in Utah. Summit, Salt Lake and Grand Counties and Springdale are all under a mask order, which requires people to wear a face covering in public. Herbert reiterated Thursday that counties can ask for permission to make masks mandatory.
"It shows respect for your neighbor," Herbert said about wearing masks. "Thank you for caring for others."
Before Herbert announced changes to the state's color-coded recovery plan, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall posted on Twitter:
We are nearly a month away from school starting. If there were ever a time to take a bold step against COVID, it’s now. Our state needs a mask mandate to safely reopen our schools.
Herbert replied during the press conference, "We have others calling for mask mandate, that's nothing new and on the table but that's a lever we're not going to pull right now. I like local control."
On Thursday, the state reported an increase of 954 cases of coronavirus. The count includes cases that have been identified over the past six weeks but are being added to the total case count on Thursday, according to a statement from the health department.
"Of the newly reported positive cases, 251 are the result of antigen testing that has occurred in some labs since early-June... Additionally, due to an electronic data reporting delay 50 cases that were diagnosed during the first week of July, and 246 cases that were diagnosed earlier this week are being added to the total case count today," the statement read.
Herbert challenged the people of Utah last week to get the seven-day rolling average below 500 by Aug. 1. If that's not reached, the governor warned more serious action may need to be taken.