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Utah governor declares state of emergency as COVID-19 patients strain hospitals

Utah's Gov. Gary Herbert (R) moved late Sunday to raise the level of restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 in his state, citing a surge in new infections.

In a series of tweets, the governor said that all Utahns would be subject to a statewide mask mandate and added that all extracurricular activities in state schools were suspended.

"Due to the alarming rate of COVID infections within our state, tonight I issued a new state of emergency with several critical changes to our response. These changes are not shutting down our economy, but are absolutely necessary to save lives and hospital capacity," he wrote.

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"Masks do not negatively affect our economy and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus," Herbert said in the video of requiring masks. "Experts tell us that masks do not cause a shortage of oxygen to the brain or cause disease. We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer. Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom.”

Herbert has resisted issuing a statewide mask order for months. He previously told the Salt Lake Tribune he "supports mask wearing" but is “concerned that requiring masks could create divisive enforcement issues at a time when we need to come together of our own accord around a shared concern for one another’s health.”

The new statewide mandate is strict, requiring all Utahns to "wear masks in public, and when within six feet of anyone they don’t live with."

Herbert's announcement comes as case levels have skyrocketed in Utah in recent weeks, far exceeding the state's previous peak reached in midsummer and surging past 2,000 new cases per day for the first time last Friday.

A number of states have been resistant to issue statewide orders requiring residents to wear masks in public; roughly 33 states and Washington, D.C., have moved to implement such directives since the pandemic began, according to an AARP tally.

An official with President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE's campaign said Sunday that Biden would pressure local leaders to implement mask mandates once he takes office next year.

-Updated 12:03 p.m.