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After airport crowds, some Utah leaders call for stricter measures to keep people home

Posted at 6:09 PM, Mar 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-23 20:52:41-04

SALT LAKE CITY — State and local leaders expressed frustration that people ignored critical health warnings to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, showing up in large groups at Salt Lake City International Airport to greet returning Latter-day Saint missionaries.

FOX 13 video from Sunday night showed large crowds not exercising social distancing. Family and friends of the missionaries crowded together in airport terminals and the parking garage, hugging them.

"Really disappointed in the behavior we saw from missionary families at the SLC airport tonight. I get it, I’ve been there (and still have a child serving), but this is unacceptable. In a time of shared sacrifice, we must do better to save lives," Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, who heads the state's COVID-19 task force, said in a post on Twitter.

Governor Gary Herbert expressed similar feelings. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall was also disappointed.

"That puts everyone’s lives at stake. It really defeats the purpose of bringing these missionaries home in the first place," she said. "I do believe we need to be more stringent."

On Monday, the mayor and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced stricter measures to prevent a repeat incident. Individuals picking up returning missionaries are told to park on the second level of the short-term parking garage and remain in their vehicle. Missionaries will be directed by airport staff to the parking area for pickup. Only one vehicle is permitted to pick up a missionary. Airport security will be monitoring adherence to the guidelines, the mayor's office said.

In recent days, state and local leaders have sought to walk a fine line in urging people to stay at home to "flatten the curve" of the COVID-19 pandemic and not issue all-out orders like other states demanding that people shelter in place. Health departments in Utah and Salt Lake Counties banned gatherings of 10 or more people, only to have them walked back by Gov. Herbert who said he disagreed with an aspect of the order that made violations a class B misdemeanor.

On Monday, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said it was still strongly recommended that people stay home and do not gather in groups of 10 or more.

"Those types of gatherings cannot be happening. That will cause the spread of COVID-19 and we want to make sure people maintain social distance," Dr. Dunn said of the airport incident. "We’re in this for the long haul. These social distancing measures are going to have to be a way of life for Utahns and for the U.S. for the next several months. So we need to adjust to that."

Mayor Mendenhall told FOX 13 she was not ruling out stricter orders in Salt Lake City, including a shelter-in-place order, should it become necessary.

"We're doing everything we can as a city to keep people safe and try to support our local businesses," she said.

The mayor acknowledged economic concerns and said she was continuing to speak with state officials about it.

"I will be looking at more stringent guidelines but I would prefer to do those in cooperation with our county and with our state if possible," the mayor said. "Because Salt Lake City doesn’t exist in a bubble."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Herbert said the COVID-19 task force continues to strongly recommend people stay at home whenever possible, especially those who are immunocompromised or over age 60. Any stricter orders continue to be evaluated.

Utah is reporting 257 positive cases of coronavirus out of more than 5,000 tests given. On Monday, University of Utah Health announced it would be ramping up its testing by the end of the week to as many as 3,000 tests a day.

"We are continuing to see an increase in cases daily in Utah. We haven’t seen exponential growth, thankfully," Dr. Dunn said.

Among those positive cases is Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.

"It's been quite the ride!" she said in an interview with FOX 13 from her home, where she is now quarantined.

Still coughing slightly, Sen. Escamilla said she and her husband have both tested positive. She began experiencing some symptoms three days after the Utah State Legislature adjourned and by Friday was in the emergency room. The Salt Lake County Health Department is now tracing her contacts to see how she came to contract coronavirus. (Meanwhile, members of the Utah State Legislature have started to "self-isolate" as a precaution.)

Sen. Escamilla urged people to stay home and practice social distancing. Asked if the state should do more to force people to stay at home, Sen. Escamilla said she believed they should.

"I wish the state would be a little more aggressive, personally. I know there’s a lot of issues to be considered, I recognize them as a lawmaker," she told FOX 13. "But certainly, the safety and the public health is, I think, should be our number one priority and as much restriction as possible is what we should be aiming at."