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Utah governor issues statewide mask mandate amid virus surge

FILE - In this April 15, 2020, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask during a news conference, in Salt Lake City. Herbert declared a state of emergency, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, and ordered a statewide mask mandate in an attempt to stem a surge in coronavirus patient hospitalizations that is testing the state's hospital capacity. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency and ordered a statewide mask mandate in an attempt to stem a surge in coronavirus patient hospitalizations that is testing the state’s hospital capacity.

Herbert and the Utah Department of Health late Sunday issued executive and public health orders requiring residents to wear face coverings in public, at work and when they are within 6 feet (2 meters) of people who don’t live in their households.

Several of the state’s largest counties already required masks, but Herbert, a Republican, had resisted extending the rule to the entire state despite a two-month surge of cases.

Herbert said Sunday night that the time to debate masks had passed and insisted his orders won’t shut down the economy.

The new Utah rules also call for a two-week pause on extracurricular activities including athletic events, with the exception of high school championship games and Intercollegiate athletic events as long as testing and social distancing guidelines are adhered to. Herbert ordered a limit on “casual social gatherings” to household members only.

The orders go into effect at 1 p.m. local time (MST) on Monday and are set to last until Nov. 23.

By Jan. 1, all Utah students at public and private universities who attend at least one class per week in person must be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis.

State officials sent out an emergency alert to state residents on their phones Sunday to alert them to Herbert’s televised address outlining the orders.

Earlier Sunday, Utah health authorities announced a new high in the number of coronavirus hospitalizations and 2,386 more confirmed COVID-19 cases as the pandemic surged.

Some 424 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Sunday, according to the Utah Department of Health. On Friday, hospitalizations stood at a then-record 395 COVID-19 patients.

Herbert’s office said in a statement Sunday that the mask-wearing mandate will be extended beyond Nov. 23 “for the foreseeable future.”

Utah’s seven-day average of newly confirmed daily cases has reached a record-breaking 2,290.

In the past two weeks, Utah’s positivity average — the percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive — has increased from 18.5% to 20.6%, according to state data. At least 659 state residents have died of the coronavirus and more than 132,000 have been infected.

Utah also will ramp up its contact tracing efforts and its testing of younger individuals who usually show no symptoms of the coronavirus, including the college testing, testing for students engaged in extracurricular activities and, eventually, workplace testing for people 35 and younger, Herbert’s office said. Utah National Guard personnel will help in contact tracing, it said.

“To make a real difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and turning around the dire situation in our hospitals, we all need to do more,” the governor said in a statement. “This is a sacrifice for all of us. But as we slow the spread it will make all the difference for our overworked healthcare workers, who desperately need our help.”

The announcement came after Utah’s largest teachers union called on Friday for the governor to mandate that all public secondary schools in high coronavirus transmission areas shift to remote learning.

The Utah Education Association also asked Herbert to suspend all extracurricular activities that can’t comply with social distancing guidelines in high transmission areas from the Thanksgiving holiday through the winter school break.

Herbert has said he’s concerned that people are feeling fatigued from the pandemic and urged Utah residents to follow masking and social distancing requirements.

The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.