This week in COVID-19: UVU, BYU presidents urge students to follow COVID-19 guidelines as cities go ‘orange’

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President Tuminez and President Kevin J. Worthen of Brigham Young University issued a warning to students that unless COVID-19 cases in Utah County decrease soon, both campuses may shut down and move online—possibly for the rest of the semester. 

The joint letter was published the morning of Sept. 22, hours before Governor Herbert announced that both Orem and Provo would be moving back to “level orange,” or moderate risk, coronavirus restrictions. 

Positive cases of the coronavirus in Utah County currently account for 40% of cases statewide. Reports from the Utah Department of Health have noted that a significant percentage of those cases are occurring in 15- to 24-year-olds. BYU has reported a total of 1,014 cases, which is the highest of any university in Utah. UVU has reported 198 total cases between faculty and students. Those numbers may change soon, as free coronavirus testing is currently being offered on campus for a limited time.

The presidents of both universities called the rise in positive cases among college students “alarming and unacceptable.”

“We’re concerned not only for your well-being, but also for those in the local community who are affected by the trends we’ve seen in the last week,” said presidents Tuminez and Worthen in the message. “If circumstances do not improve within the next two weeks, more dramatic action will be necessary.”

That action will potentially include closing campus to in-person classes for a two-week quarantine or a complete closure for the rest of the semester, according to the leaders.

UVU director of emergency management and safety Robin Ebmeyer has previously cited UVU’s status as a commuter college as the “biggest factor in limiting cases.” 

However, some have pointed to large gatherings off-campus and dance parties where attendees were photographed unmasked and in close quarters as one of the major causes for the spike in positive cases. There has also been resistance to mask mandates, restrictions and safety guidelines from Utah County residents.

Presidents Tuminez and Worthen made it clear to students that “behavior must change” if face-to-face classes are to continue. 

“We implore you to stay home except for in-person classes, work, church, and other essentials,” they said. “We expect you to follow all safety requirements on campus and all state and local mandates off campus.”

Face-to-face classes at UVU have been operating at code orange restrictions since the semester began Aug. 24. Not much will change for students who have in-person classes until a decision is made about closing the school. However, a lack of mask wearing has led to the closure of several common areas on campus, such as the Ballroom Commons in the Sorenson Center.

Joyce Porter, an advisor in the digital media department, said a campus closure would be an obstacle for students she works with. 

“I get asked constantly by students if they think we will close down again,” Porter said. “They worry about this because their programs are so based on hands-on learning that a closure would greatly affect learning in these programs.”

Provo and Orem go ‘orange’

Earlier last week, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered Provo and Orem to retreat back to “orange” restrictions, which places a tighter hold on large gatherings. 

City officials quickly followed that up with a mask mandate for both cities, requiring face coverings to be worn in public at all times. Public events, including high school sporting events, were subsequently cancelled or postponed as the “orange” restrictions limit most indoor and outdoor gatherings to 20 people.

Governor Herbert said this is the first time any communities in Utah have backslid to tighter restrictions since the pandemic began. 

“Intervention is needed,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday. “A little pain now will be better than a lot of pain later.”

These restrictions have generated discussion about whether campuses will be the next thing to close. Robin Ebmeyer, UVU’s director of emergency management and safety, said most of the “orange” requirements are being followed by the school already. 

“Moving to Orange is not an automatic push (for) classes to remote learning,” she said. “Very little changed for us.”

As for the statement issued by Presidents Tuminez and Worthen, Ebmeyer believes that comes down to individual responsibility, not just institutional crackdowns. 

“People either get it or they do not; they will either do it or they will not,” she said. “We (UVU) will continue to do everything we have control over.”

UVU’s coronavirus safety protocols and reported case count can be found at the “Return to Campus” webpage.

Assistant News Editor Robby Poffenberger contributed to this story.