SALT LAKE CITY — Hours after Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide mask mandate took effect, roughly 50 people gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion on South Temple in Salt Lake City to protest what they say is government overreach and an infringement on their rights.
“He doesn’t have the authority to tell us what to do in our own lives, in our homes and what we wear,” said Ken Whetstone, who braved Monday’s freezing temps and light snow to gather outside.
Carrying signs that read “Tyranny spreads COVID-19,” “No dictator Herbert” and “Our immune system is our God given PPE,” the crowd started small Monday afternoon, growing to about 50 people by 5 p.m.
The protest garnered a mix of reactions from passersby, some honking in support, some slowing down to hurl expletives. A few Utah Highway Patrol troopers lingered around the mansion’s front lawn, but a visible police presence was absent Monday evening.
Meanwhile, a similar protest took shape outside of Herbert’s personal home in Orem, and a video on social media shows dozens gathered in the Utah County suburb, waving flags and chanting “unmask Utah.”
“If everybody who’s not happy with the mask mandate and the limit of 10 people gathering, if everyone that was unhappy with that came out to protest, this street would be full,” Whetstone said about the small Salt Lake City gathering.
“People are afraid. You’re a little person standing against a big government, and a lot of people have been intimidated. Shame on them, who are allowing the government to intimidate them,” he said.
Issued at 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the sweeping order requires Utahns wear masks when in public and when they come within 6 feet of people they don’t live with. Businesses that fail to promote mask wearing and post signage could face fines, officials said Sunday.
The order also halted extracurricular activities and casual social gatherings, and calls for college students who either live on campus or attend at least one in-person class to be tested for COVID-19 every week.
Herbert’s announcement comes in the wake of record-shattering coronavirus numbers, including 2,987 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 last Friday, Utah’s highest increase since the start of the pandemic. In the week leading up to the mandate, the state averaged over 2,200 cases a day and a positive rate above 20%, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.
The surging numbers are resulting in an unsustainable situation for health care workers, officials say, as intensive care units in most of the state’s largest referral hospitals — University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, nearby Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, and McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden — were nearly full last week.
However, much of this data was disputed Monday, as protesters accused state health officials and Herbert of padding stats, fear-mongering and abuse of power.
“There is no overflow in the hospitals” said Sally Quinn. “If he was really concerned about that, he would be setting up field hospitals.”
“There’s more deaths from diabetes, heart disease ... the CDC isn’t even counting flu deaths anymore, they’ve even said that,” said Mike Brown, of Bountiful. The CDC is still counting flu death, according to weekly numbers posted on its website.
“If he’s so in charge of curing things and helping mitigate these things that can happen to us, why hasn’t he done anything previous to now?” Brown said, his voice nearly drowned out by a protester chanting “medical freedom” over a megaphone.
“I believe there is much more behind the whole virus than meets the eye,” said Dave Krug. “I don’t believe (social distancing) is for protecting us from a virus that’s 1,000 times smaller than what the human eye can see. There’s more at stake. Someone’s trying to change the American way of life.”
The Deseret News requested a statement from Gov. Herbert’s office, but was instead referred to the governor’s speech Sunday night.
“We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer,” Herbert said in his taped remarks. “Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom. Laws are put in place to protect all of us. That’s why we have traffic lights, speed limits and seat belts, and that’s why we now have a mask mandate.”