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© Leah Hogsten
(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1,000 people protested the government mandated shutdown of businesses on the grounds of Salt Lake City Hall, Saturday. The protest was organized by Utah Business Revival aimed at Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilsonand Governor Gary Herbert policies on COVID-19 and social distancing, April 18, 2020.
They came with signs and wearing red, white and blue. They came with masks. Most came without. They came with just-purchased take-out from McDonald’s and Costa Vida and Crown Burger. They came with lawn chairs and picnic blankets.
But mostly they, close to 1,000 people, came because they could. This is the United States and they want to get back to normal. They want to get back to work.
“We have to let [government officials] know, with our voice, that it’s ‘We the People’ and not ‘They the Government,” rally organizer Eric Moutsos said to cheers from the group of hundreds of people who tightly packed around him in front of Salt Lake City Hall on Saturday evening.
“We can be respectful, we can be healthy, we can be safe,” he said, “and we can work, as American citizens, immediately.”
Utah Business Revival has been steadily growing on Facebook, filling with Utahns who believe that the state and local stay-at-home directives and orders infringe on their rights and do more harm than good.
Group members point to soaring unemployment rates. They anticipate an increase in suicides as people lose their livelihoods. They say that “snitching” on neighbors for gathering is like fascism. They say Americans can make their own decisions, and those who want to open their businesses and get back to work have that right.
As one rally-goer stated on a sign: Quarantine is for sick people. Keeping healthy people at home is tyranny.
Much of the two-hour rally focused on the constitutionality of Salt Lake City and County’s stay-at-home order. Yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were nearly as prevalent as the American flag.
Similar protests have materialized in Idaho, Michigan, Texas and Virginia as people push back against self-isolation orders imposed to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“People can’t go to work. People can’t go where they want. This is tyranny, ladies and gentleman,” said Thomas, who wore a shirt reading “Hillary for Prison 2016,” and declined to give his last name to The Salt Lake Tribune.
There was no notable police or security presence at Saturday’s rally, although both city and county mayors had spoken out against mass gatherings and had issued public health orders that said violators could be punished with a class B misdemeanor.
In a statement, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she established the public health order to stop the spread of the virus, and said that “demonstrators have chosen to gather in one of the most infected zip codes in the state: downtown Salt Lake City’s 84101.”
She added, “We’re grateful for those who are taking the order seriously by not gathering in large groups. We should all be making these sacrifices for doctors, nurses, medical workers, first responders and front line workers who are most at risk right now.”
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Friday that any rally shouldn’t happen for at least weeks or months from now — and the gathering was a violation of the county order.
“Mass gatherings are our biggest enemy,” she said. “I know, from what I’ve heard, they’re pushing for social distancing. A rally is a rally and is a mass gathering. And it’s prohibited.”
But many at the rally don’t believe politicians and medical professionals are telling the truth about the virus’s lethality. And they especially don’t believe government officials can infringe on their rights to peaceable assembly.
Rosie Moore, of Park City, is over 60. She came to the rally Saturday dressed in a star-spangled denim jacket and carrying a sign with a graph of Utah’s unemployment numbers. It proclaimed: “Flatten this curve.”
She said that when first heard about the novel coronavirus, she was concerned.
Then she did research, and now she said the facts are adding up. She said she doesn’t think that the death rate is as concerning as others make it out to be, mostly because testing rates are so low.
Moore thinks all Americans should be able to look at information “and make our own decisions about how we safeguard our own health, the health of our family, our children, our neighbors, our communities, our business, our staff our customers.”
The rally ended around 8 p.m. Saturday, three hours after its official start. By then, protesters had walked and driven the nearly 1.5 miles up State Street to the Capitol.
Along the way, they faced heckles and jeers from passersby. A man at a house that lined the road shouted at the crowd, “This is outrageously irresponsible. Go the hell home.”
But on the Capitol steps, Kristen Chevrier, director of Your Health Freedom, said the orders to stay at home are irresponsible. And unfair to working people. She said more people will die because of repercussions of unemployment than the virus.
As for the man and others like him who shouted disapproval at protesters: “They’re operating solely on fear.”
“Fear,” she said, “that has been stirred up by the media. Fear that has been stirred up by the governor, and also fear that has been stirred up by The Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], frankly.”
As of Saturday, 25 people in Utah have died because of COVD-19, the illness cause by the coronavirus, with 2,931 confirmed positive cases.