Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has announced a new statewide mask mandate and additional measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus amid a steep spike in COVID-19 cases in the state.
Under the new mask requirement, all Utah residents must wear masks in public and when within 6 feet of anyone they don't live with.
In an address Sunday evening, Herbert said the measures were necessary to relieve the overwhelming burden on the state's hospitals and medical professionals.
"Masks do not negatively affect our economy, and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus," the governor said. "We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer. Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom."
Herbert said, "Laws are put in places to protect all of us. That's why we have traffic lights, speed limits and seatbelts, and that's why we now have a mask mandate."
Coronavirus cases in Utah have been rising sharply since mid-September. The state's positivity rate is 20.6% for the past week, NPR member station KUER reported.
Under the mandate, businesses must require employees to wear masks and promote mask-wearing by patrons — and post signage accordingly. Businesses that do not comply are subject to fines.
Due to elevated levels of virus transmission, masks were already required in most of the state's counties.
Under the new restrictions, casual social gatherings are only permitted among people who live in the same household for the next two weeks.
"You should cancel plans with extended family and friends for the next two weeks. Telework if you can," the state urges on a page outlining the new regulations.
Utah has reported 132,621 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including 6,084 hospitalizations and 659 deaths.
In a press conference Monday with the governor, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said the two-week period will allow the state to see fewer new cases.
"It's really going to depend on all of us adhering to these principles, and we'll watch the data to see what is needed past the two weeks," she said.
Herbert said the state "will not tolerate organizers of public gatherings that do not exercise the required precautions of social distancing and mask-wearing." Violators can face fines up to $10,000 for each instance, he said.
Work, school and religious services are not part of the mandate, as masks and physical distancing are already required in these settings.
Most K-12 sports and activities are also on hold, though high school football games are allowed to take place with some restrictions.
College sports are allowed to continue under existing restrictions. The University of Utah football team has been struggling with COVID-19 cases within its program. Its opening game, scheduled for last Saturday, was declared a no contest after Utah did not have enough scholarship players available to play due to positive cases and isolation requirements. The Utes' next game was to take place Friday against UCLA, but it will be delayed by a day, the school said.
Herbert's executive order is effective Monday and lasts until Nov. 23. The mask mandate will continue after that date, while the other restrictions are set to expire then.
The state's K-12 schools are open for in-person learning.
State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson told KUER that spread of the virus to teachers and students is due in large part to events and gatherings outside the classroom.
"In the case of activities and athletics, we want to curb the spread so that students and teachers aren't bringing that back into school," Dickson said. "But when they're in school they can be very focused on the right things and not be worried all the time about the spread of the virus."
College students who live on campus or attend in-person classes will be tested weekly for the virus, although that testing is expected to take time to ramp up.
Health experts said a full economic shutdown was not necessary in Utah, Herbert said. But he added that "the wearing of masks, and exercising every precaution when it comes to gathering with others, including social distancing, is crucial."
The governor emphasized that his state is still open for business and residents are able to shop, dine, worship and recreate. But to stem the spread of the virus, he said, it was necessary to issue the new orders.
Herbert also called on citizens to show care for one another beyond the letter of the law.
"There is no legislation or executive order that can mandate civility, respect and basic consideration for others," he said. "This is about so much more than just mandates. This is about personal responsibility."