After an informal letter caused confusion among residents, the Southeast Utah Health Department issued a clarification on Saturday, April 11: Moab and southeastern Utah aren’t opening back up anytime soon.

The letter, issued on April 10 from SEUHD Director Bradon Bradford, confirmed that residents could expect the current public health order closing many businesses and recommending physical distancing would be renewed this week.

It also contained hypothetical plans for reopening businesses including restaurants and overnight lodging at some unspecified future date.

In an email with the Moab Sun News, a public information officer from the health department said that the letter was written particularly for overnight lodging owners anxious to know when they could begin booking rooms for tourists.

“At this time we wanted to let people know, especially lodging, what to expect: if they could expect to accept new stays starting on the 16th or not,” wrote SEUHD’s Brittney Garff to the Moab Sun News.

The answer to that question is “no,” but the contents of the letter went beyond that simple answer into speculation about the future.

Although the letter specified that the plans were only loose ideas, some residents felt that the health department was signaling a potential reduction in social distancing measures to protect the area from the coronavirus.

Residents expressed a variety of opinions on the SEUHD Facebook page, from those voicing the belief that any lessening of social distancing would be “too soon” to those believing that the current closures have already gone “too far.”

A Friday release

After the release of the informal letter late on Friday, the Moab Sun News had asked the department whether there were concerns these theoretical plans could cause confusion on what current official policy for businesses is.

“It’s only a letter,” said Garff at the time. “We do not see this creating more confusion, rather it informs the public so they can see a future further out than the 5 days till the end of the current order.”

However, less than 24 hours later the department issued a clarification FAQ to clear up misunderstandings about the tentative plans within.

The clarifications include assurances that overnight lodging will remain closed until at least May 4 and that the department will “continue to vigorously promote” social distancing.

Imagining open businesses in the future

In the letter, SEUHD Health Director Brady Bradford offered guesses on the potential of opening restaurants.

“In the future, I envision opening restaurants to interior dining for 30% of capacity, growing to 50%, 75%, and 100% capacity (those numbers are not definite, but represent what a gradual return to normal might look like),” he wrote in the letter.

Bradford also threw out some theoretical plans on reopening overnight lodging as well.

“These examples are not intended as guarantee [sic] of change but are examples of what might be necessary to implement in order to best balance health, safety, and economic concerns,” he wrote.

In the clarification release from the department, this need for flexibility is stated even more plainly and in all capital letters: “AS OF TODAY, WE DO NOT KNOW THE DATE THAT THIS WILL HAPPEN, BUT WHENEVER THAT DAY COMES, WE DO NOT WANT TO BE UNPREPARED.”

Other businesses may plan to reopen

In the letter, Bradford asks some other local businesses, including salons and tattoo parlors, to submit a “COVID-19 mitigation plan” to the health department that addresses public health guidelines.

Shortly after the informal letter was issued, the SEUHD posted on Facebook, saying, “For any confusion: If you make a submission your business could potentially open back up at the end of the current order, which ends April 15 at 11:59 p.m.,” a policy change that is not within the letter or previous health orders.

The previous health order which closed spas, salons, gyms and similar businesses stated that such businesses were to be closed indefinitely “due to the physical impossibility of compliance” with social distancing and public health orders. The Moab Sun News’s questions to SEUHD as to when this policy change was decided were not answered as of print time.

Jen Sadoff, CEO of Moab Regional Hospital, reported that Bradford had met with hospital officials that morning to give staff an update on policies.

“I mean, to some degree there does have to be a plan for reopening,” she said, emphasizing that for most businesses the closures would remain in place for over three weeks.

Sadoff also expressed gratitude that the May 4 date is after cases in Utah are expected to peak.

‘Herd immunity’

“I would also like to remind community members that continued extreme social distancing can be as hazardous to each of our communities as a complete lack of social distancing,” wrote Bradford.

It’s unclear what “extreme social distancing” entails; Utah is one of only 9 states to have no mandatory stay-at-home order.

“If COVID-19 is never introduced into the community, then people don’t build up the immunity the need and we’ll never gain what is termed ‘herd immunity’ or the ability for enough of people to become immune to a disease that it protects those that do not have that ability,” wrote Bradford.

“Herd immunity” is when a majority of people become immune to an infectious disease, so the disease stops spreading within that community. However, the immunity does not work with every virus and relies on many people in a community contracting the disease. In the case of measles and other diseases, this is achieved through vaccination. At this time, there is no vaccine for COVID-19.

As research on COVID-19 is still ongoing, health experts have pointed to a lack of information on how the disease is spread, if humans can maintain an immunity to the disease and other important factors that would make this a viable strategy.

Questions to SEUHD from the Moab Sun News on how the idea of “herd immunity” is guiding their policy decisions were not answered by print time.

MRH’s Sadoff expressed some concern about considering “herd immunity” a goal, while remaining practical.

“Honestly, it’s unlikely that we’ll keep the entire country on lockdown until there’s a vaccine,” she said in a call with the Moab Sun News.

“The reality is that for herd immunity to occur we would need some indication that COVID-19 had already been here and a ton of people have developed immunity,” she said.

Without that, hospital strategy is focused on isolating individuals who are high-risk, particularly the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, from the spread of the illness.

However, as COVID-19 has been seen to make even seemingly healthy younger patients severely ill, she noted the limits of this practice.

“There are people who are considered ‘low-risk’ who are dying,” she said.

“How do you decide that someone is not at risk? We’ve seen totally healthy teens and twenty-year-olds die” in areas around the country, she said.

Bradford’s letter also mentions goals of increased regional testing. Sadoff expanded on that.

“We’re starting to do testing of asymptomatic individuals and we’re hoping that the health department and the state will help us as well,” she said, stating that the hospital hopes to quickly increase the number of tests for employees who work with high-risk populations, particularly homes for the elderly.

“If the disease gets into a long-term care facility,” Sadoff noted, “that’s where you see a lot of deaths.”

To end the letter, Bradford asks for “constructive feedback” to be sent to his email address at bbradfor@utah.gov.