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Latter-day Saint leaders express ‘deep concern,’ again instruct missionary families to follow protocol at airports

Elder Brock Winter wheels his luggage as hundreds of missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints return from the Philippines to Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday, March 22, 2020.
Elder Brock Winter wheels his luggage as hundreds of missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints return from the Philippines to Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday, March 22, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Government, airport and Latter-day Saints leaders said Monday they do not want to see a repeat of Sunday’s impromptu mass gathering of families greeting returning missionaries at Salt Lake City International Airport.

Some families who picked up about 1,000 Latter-day Saint missionaries did not adhere to the state health order prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people or follow the pick-up protocol established by airport and church officials.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called the large welcome party dangerous and Sen. Mitt Romney said it was irresponsible. The Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a letter Monday afternoon calling for better compliance.

“What occurred on Sunday afternoon at the Salt Lake airport causes us deep concern with missionaries and their families disregarding important instructions regarding self-isolation and congregating at airports,” said the letter, which was sent to Utah stake presidents. “We ask you to help members in your stake understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of practicing safe social distancing and the need to follow the recommendations from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

More than 1,600 missionaries from the Philippines. arrived at the airport from one of five Delta jets chartered by the church. The Philippines had asked most foreigners to leave because of concerns surrounding COVID-19.

Hundreds of the missionaries who arrived in Salt Lake on Sunday made connecting flights to their homes in other states or in Canada, but about 1,000 were greeted in an airport parking garage by their families.

The church had instructed the families to follow the protocols set up by the Salt Lake International Airport. Airport officials instructed the families to remain in their cars on the second level of the Terminal 2 parking garage. They said that as each missionary entered the garage, they would call out his or her name.

“Parents or guardians should go to the airport alone to meet a returning missionary and practice safe social distancing while there,” the church said on Sunday afternoon. “That way, the missionary is able to properly begin self-isolation.”

Instead, siblings and others joined the welcoming party. Initially, families remained in their cars, where some were interviewed by media. Anticipation grew when notifications began to arrive that the first flight had landed early around 2:30 p.m. A couple dozen people moved from their cars toward the terminal door to the parking garage.

A pair of airport officials walked through the crowd asking them to return to their cars, but when the first missionary arrived, cheers went up and more people moved from their cars to the door.

Airline officials escorted the first missionaries down the pedestrian lane, calling out their names. Many of the first missionaries walked down the lane and found their families waiting by their cars.

As time passed, more vehicles arrived with families expecting missionaries on one of the later flights. After an hour, dozens stood in a ring about 50-75 feet from the door. The Deseret News reporter and photographer covering the event left to file their story. Over the next two to three hours, videos and photographs show, the crowd grew much larger.

“Moving forward, it is critical for the health and safety of all, that everyone follows our request,” stated the official Twitter account of the Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the United States is 80 times higher than the number in the Philippines, according to the latest situation report published by the World Health Organization. The U.S. population is three times larger than that of the Philippines.

The church is sending thousands of its missionaries back to their home countries during the pandemic. It has given them strict self-isolation guidelines to be followed for two weeks, including a mandate to remain at home.

“They are encouraged to stay in a well-ventilated room, preferably alone,” the church said. “If that isn’t possible, the missionary should stay 6 feet away from others in the room.”