SALT LAKE CITY >> The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said today it is suspending all worship services because of the spread of the coronavirus, a decision made hours after Utah’s governor recommended group gatherings in the state be limited to no more than 100 people for at least the next two weeks.
The Utah-based faith sent a letter to members informing them of a decision that also calls on a temporary suspension of all church activities until further notice. The move comes one day after the faith announced it would hold a major conference in early April without attendees, the first time in 60 years that the religion has taken the extraordinary step of barring church members from attending in person.
Earlier Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert recommended the limit on gatherings of groups larger than 100 people, pointing out that the measure applied to churches, conferences and concerts, but not businesses. Utah is not seeing community spread of the virus, but officials are bracing for that to happen, Herbert said at a news conference in Salt Lake City.
He also recommended that people over the age of 60 avoid gatherings of more than 20 people, and that people work from home if possible.
“It’s better to be too early than to be too late,” Herbert said. “We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.”
Officials from several colleges including the University of Utah and Utah State University also announced they are canceling in-person classes and moving the rest of the semester online, following the lead of dozens of other universities. The University of Utah also canceled all athletic events while Brigham Young University will hold sporting events without fans.
Five people have tested positive for the virus so far in Utah, including two Utah Jazz basketball players, but no one has died, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is leading the state’s coronavirus task force. All have contracted the disease while traveling outside of Utah, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said. She urged caution but also said people can still go to the park with their children and go to the store.
“I want to be very clear: We’re not making these decisions today because things are really bad,” Cox said. “We’re making these today to make sure that things don’t get really bad.”
The state hasn’t been able to test as many people as it would like, Cox said, with a total of about 160 people tested as of Thursday. He said state officials hope to be able to test 1,000 people a day when fully ramped up.
Utah was also at the epicenter of pro sports cancellations Wednesday when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to be diagnosed with the coronavirus Wednesday, leading to the suspension of the NBA season. Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell has also tested positive for the virus.
All the players and team employees except the two players who tested positive were returning from Oklahoma City, said Steve Starks, CEO, of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies that owns the Jazz.
He said the team practice facility and Vivint Smart Home Arena —where the team plays games and other concerts and events take place — are being cleaned and sanitized.
The Utah Legislature said today it plans to allocate about $24 million to provide to health departments in an effort to try and prevent the spread of the virus among older people who are the most vulnerable, according to a news release.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 61,000 have so far recovered.
Nearly all of Utah’s public schools will remain open for now. But they have been told to cancel any out-of-state travel and consider altering athletic events, assemblies and gatherings of more than 100 people.
Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s superintendent of public instruction, said assessing whether to close schools is more complicated than colleges because schools don’t have the capability to provide online classes and because many families with parents who work would not able to find or pay for child care if their kids were stuck at home. That said, Dickson acknowledged that closures could be coming.