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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Washington County To Ease COVID-19 Restrictions

A view of the desert, seen from a mountain top
David Fuchs
Washington County, as seen from above, where COVID-19 restrictions will begin to ease starting May 1.

ST. GEORGE — Washington County will tiptoe towards some kind of normalcy on May 1.That’s when the county will put into effect the next phase of its pandemic response, which will give nonessential businesses the option to reopen with precautions and relax other restrictions.

County officials introduced the plan at a joint press conference held by the Washington County Commission and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department on Monday, adding that more details will be available to the public later this week.

“We’re seeking a proper balance so that business can carry on and individuals such as myself — and anyone else in the community that is at risk — can be as safe as possible,” said Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox, who himself is immunocompromised, during the press conference. 

The decision mirrors Gov. Gary Herbert's Friday announcement that Utah will seek to downgrade its COVID-19 risk level to "moderate" along the same timeline.

Regional Health Department Supports The Move

The decision was backed by Dr. David Blodgett, the head of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, who described the scope of the pandemic as “very mild” within the five counties under his health district.

The health district, which encompasses Washington, Iron, Kane, Garfield and Beaver Counties, saw its first positive case of COVID-19 on March 6, a passenger on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Since then, the district has reported 88 additional cases of the disease among its residents, including 59 recoveries and two deaths.

That rate of infection is slow enough to justify a more targeted response to disease prevention, Blodgett said.

“We haven’t really had a peak,” he said, describing the shape of the infection curve in his district. “We are flat-plateaued from the beginning to the end.”

The new plan will require people in high-risk groups — such as people over 60 or with underlying conditions — to stay at home while allowing younger, healthier people to move about more freely.

However, the health department will still recommend that low-risk residents observe social distancing and wear masks if they are within 6 feet of a person who is not part of their household, a department spokesperson later clarified.

Some Southwest Utahns Eager To Return To Normal

The upcoming shift is necessary, said Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, referring to what he sees as a desperation among his constituents to return to life as normal.

That craving became apparent over the weekend, when so many people descended on three of the county’s state parks — Gunlock, Quail Creek and Sand Hollow — that they all reached capacity mid-way through the day.

A video captures the long line of cars waiting to enter Washington County’s Sand Hollow State Park on Saturday.

Balancing people’s growing desire to go about their lives with appropriate public health measures is the challenge before state and local leaders, Iverson said.

“It’s important that we encourage good health practices but also recognize that our authority will be somewhat limited if everybody decides to go back and just ignore everything,” he said.

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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