Utah, in break with states tightening coronavirus restrictions ahead of Thanksgiving, relaxes gathering limits

GOP governor still urged citizens to avoid gatherings outside of household

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert lifted some of his state's most severe coronavirus-related restrictions ahead of Thanksgiving, including an order that limited social gatherings to only those within a certain household, in a break from what other governors have been doing ahead of the holiday. 

Herbert's new order, after limiting social gatherings to just a single household for the past two weeks and not specifically exempting private residences, included a specific provision saying the health order does not apply to noncommercial gatherings at private residences. It's a sharp break from what other governors have been doing as virus cases spike in the late fall, with several states in the past week implementing more harsh provisions, not lifting them. 

But the Republican governor still urged caution for Thanksgiving as he announced an updated health order, telling Utahns that the safest way to celebrate the holiday is simply with those in their household. 

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"This Thanksgiving will be unlike any other," Herbert said in a tweet. "This year, the best way to show your family and friends you love them is by staying home and having a private celebration with those you live with — instead of gathering in larger groups."

He added: "We cannot beat COVID if we celebrate the holidays as we normally do."

Herbert's new health order still includes plenty of restrictions. Individuals when indoors and outdoors in places where it is impossible to socially distance are required to wear masks. Public events are still required to have individuals wear masks and socially distance, and to implement other measures aimed at preventing coronavirus spread. Businesses must have their employees wear masks whether indoors or not. 

The order also mandates coronavirus testing at colleges. 

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But Herbert's decision to roll back his state's toughest restrictions just ahead of the holiday comes as governors of other states are doing just the opposite. 

Minnesota recently put a blanket ban on social gatherings by anybody not of the same household. Kentucky implemented a similar order but limited gatherings to no more than eight people from two households. 

Oregon issued a "Two-Week Freeze" that limits gatherings to six people from no more than two households. Michigan does not include a number limit but caps gatherings at two households. 

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And Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Sunday announced a three-week "pause" that capped social gatherings at no more than 10 people from two households. Sisolak warned citizens that if case numbers do not decrease that he "will be forced to intervene and to take stronger action" that could include a ban on indoor dining, closing gyms and "[s]evere restrictions on gathering sizes."

The crackdowns by many states come as coronavirus numbers hit record highs and officials and experts warn of a potentially deadly winter with people spending more time indoors and the flu season intersecting with the pandemic. 

"Our case rate growth is at wildfire levels – even outpacing neighboring states, such as Arizona. All available models indicate that Nevada is in a 'red zone' and our health experts anticipate continued case growth based on current trends," Sisolak said. "Our hospitals are experiencing record numbers and as you heard from Dr. Tony Slonim of Renown a couple weeks ago, they’ve started treating patients in an alternative care site in the parking lot."

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He added: "Our public infrastructure is quickly becoming overwhelmed."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz also warned that even small gatherings in houses "is one of the riskiest things we can do right now."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks from the Governor's Reception room at the State Capitol, to discuss the latest steps in his response to COVID-19, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks from the Governor's Reception room at the State Capitol, to discuss the latest steps in his response to COVID-19, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

"I heard a nurse the other day who was with me and she said 'please stay home over Thanksgiving so you're not celebrating with me in the emergency room," he added. 

Meanwhile, some Republican officials are pushing back against the restrictions and recommendations for people to forego Thanksgiving. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been perhaps the most prominent, tweeting a version of the "Come and Take It" flag that replaces the iconic cannon with a turkey. 

"Twitter Leftists are losing their minds that we’re not willing to give up Thanksgiving," Cruz said of the reaction to the image. "Wait till they find out we won’t give up Christmas either."

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., meanwhile, lauded a county sheriff's office for announcing that it would not enforce gathering limits imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ahead of the holiday. 

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"This is 100% the right call! Just another one of the many reasons to be thankful for our local men & women in blue this #Thanksgiving," Zeldin tweeted. 

Experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top epidemiologist in the country, are warning that virus spread over Thanksgiving could lead to elevated numbers of hospitalizations and deaths by Christmas and the new year. 

"What most concerns me now is the immediate situation with people traveling from different places, coming home for Thanksgiving," Fauci said Monday on "PBS NewsHour." "So if we could just hang in there and adhere to these public health measures as we get more and more relief from the vaccines, which will start to be available in December, I think we should use that as an incentive to not give up on this and to continue to push the public health measures."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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