SALT LAKE CITY — With thousands of Utahns feeling the impact of coronavirus, local analysts point to wearing masks as the first step in helping the state recover economically from the dramatic global pandemic.

© Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
A sign in the window of The Store & Gift Shop in Ogden indicates that they are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on Thursday, April 2, 2020.

The Beehive State recently eclipsed the 35,000-mark in positive tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That number rises daily, along with hospitalizations and related fatalities. For months, local civic leaders have grappled with managing the spread of the illness that has infected more than 15 million people worldwide and is blamed for over 600,000 deaths.

This week, two Utah academics and a prominent business leader weighed in on what can be done to reduce the continued spread of the disease locally while also mitigating the crippling effects recent shutdowns have had on individual livelihoods and the state’s once booming economy.

“It’s not necessarily the government shutdown that’s causing economic damage. It’s the fact that people don’t want to go out and get sick or get their parents sick or catch the virus,” said Brian Poole, associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young University. “Until we deal with the virus, then it’s going to be really hard to get the economy up and running the way it should be again.”

He said wearing masks is the best thing the state and its municipalities can do to keep things running.

“It’s working in some places, it’s not working as well in other places,” he said. “Mask use isn’t going to completely stop everything, but it’s going to allow a lot more normal interactions and a lot more normal business interactions than without it.”

He implored leaders to develop a uniform, coherent plan that would be adopted by cities and towns throughout the state, rather than the less unified approach that has been in place thus far.

“It’s been overly politicized and there’s a lot of conspiracy theories and (misinformation) about it,” Poole said. “But if everybody would wear a mask — not a complicated mask, just a fairly simple one — we could probably beat the virus back pretty effectively.”

On the subject of herd immunity that is espoused by some critics of mask wearing, he said that notion has been mischaracterized by people who don’t truly understand what it means.

“This herd immunity thing just drives me crazy. You do not get to herd immunity naturally. Herd immunity is not generally something that just happens,” he explained. “We don’t have herd immunity against the flu, we don’t have herd immunity against the cold, we don’t have herd immunity against almost anything.”

Poole said herd immunity without a vaccine is a recipe for failure.

“Because in order for herd immunity to work, we need around 20% on the low end of all people to be infected with this virus — even to slow it down with herd immunity. That’s not stopping it, that’s slowing it down.”

He said currently, the nation has an estimated 5% overall infection rate which has resulted in 140,000 lives lost. To achieve herd immunity would require the disease to get four times worse, which is not an acceptable strategy to employ.

“Herd immunity is a very powerful thing, but it only works if you have a vaccine,” Poole said. “Natural herd immunity doesn’t happen. And if it did happen, in this case, it would cause massive loss of life, massive sickness, and everything we’re doing is trying to protect against that kind of outcome and not as a goal to shoot for.”

Poole noted that besides face coverings for individuals, businesses could be outfitted with added protective equipment such as plastic shields or other barriers to decrease transmission risk. He said leaders have to think creatively to develop strategies that help bolster businesses’ chances for survival during the pandemic while also providing safety for patrons and employees.

“The most important thing we can do to help the economy has nothing to do with traditional economics and has everything to do with combating the virus.” — Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber

A Utah economic analyst also touted masks as the most obvious tactic to use in the effort to help businesses remain viable and protect individual health.

“There’s a variety of things that could be done that would allow us to kind of get things moving again while understanding that there’s still a risk out there,” said Andrew Keinsley, assistant professor of economics at Weber State University. “Right now, mask wearing seems to be a very useful tool in terms of being able to go about as normal a daily life as you can and mitigate the risk of spreading the disease.”

He added that continuing the use of hand sanitizers and cleaning surfaces will also be effective long term. Economically speaking, he is concerned whether the federal government will approve more stimulus funding to help individuals and small businesses stay afloat as the pandemic continues to impact the state and the country.

“I personally was hoping that they would have multiple rounds, that it might have been a monthly type of thing,” Keinsley said. “As we go forward, people could be losing their jobs (and) they’re going to be under financial distress. It’s already going to be stressful enough being stuck in your home, not being able to go out. If you can help make people financially whole during that period of time, that’s one of the best ways to encourage people to stay home to not have to worry about that type of (concern).”

Meanwhile, the head of the state’s largest business advocacy organization said since the beginning of the pandemic, their goal has been to help businesses statewide strike “a balance between the health imperative and the economic imperative“ because “not only are the two not mutually exclusive, but mutually supportive.”

“The most important thing we can do to help the economy has nothing to do with traditional economics and has everything to do with combating the virus,” said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. “This the essence of and basis for the Stay Safe to Stay Open campaign — to show businesses, employers, employees and customers that the key to keeping the economy open is following health guidance that comes from the medical experts.”

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