SALT LAKE CITY — The streets surrounding the city center were the most active they’ve been in weeks.
Hundreds of people gathered on the lawn at Washington Square on Saturday — some keeping further apart than others — to express their discontent with how the American government is handling the spread of the novel coronavirus and the restrictions that have come along with it.
“I can’t abide the idea of the government deciding what is good for me and my family,” said Ashlee Jessen, who drove from Provo to join the first Utah Business Revival rally in the state. The stay-at-home mom was holding a poster that said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
“I believe liberty is worth dying for,” she said.
The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Utah on March 6. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert asked Utahns to limit unnecessary trips and stay home as much as possible before he issued his “stay safe, stay home” directive on March 26. He has closed “nonessential businesses” and restricted restaurants and food establishments to only facilitate carry-out or delivery orders. On Monday, Herbert extended those restrictions to May 1.
Salt Lake County has been stricter on restrictions, even issuing quarantine restrictions prior to the governor’s directive. And, Salt Lake City, which has had the most confirmed cases and deaths resulting from COVID-19 in the state, has also been tight on its stay-at-home recommendations.
Eric Moutsos, of St. George, said he organized Saturday’s effort to “flood the city” with people who would ultimately purchase their dinner from local businesses. He thinks government has overstepped with all the restrictions that have been imposed on people due to the projected spread of disease.
“We’ve gone through so much worse in the United States of America,” Moutsos said, who wants to deliver a message of hope to business owners whose livelihood is temporarily on hold and out-of-work employees who need help. “We’re going to be OK. We are ready to go back to work immediately.”
Only a fraction of ralliers wore masks and many held homemade signs defending their constitutional rights or expressing the freedoms they want back.
Moutsos, a former police officer, said he’s afraid a growing unemployment rate will result in more people taking their own lives, which, he said, “is something we can’t let happen.”
Amy Garner, of American Fork, said her brother died by suicide in 2017 — two months after he lost his business.
“That pain is terrible,” she said, adding that she knows others are hurting now in the same ways.
Following her brother’s death, Garner learned that depression often stems from a loss of connection, including people, hobbies and meaningful work. She said the current restrictions are taking all three from most people, which could pose more risk than COVID-19.
“We should all have the agency to choose how healthy we want to be,” Garner said. “If this doesn’t end now, where is the line drawn.”
The crowd was bigger than organizers anticipated, Moutsos, who was handing out printed copies of the U.S. Constitution, said. A steady stream of cars traveling the four adjacent roads were also carrying American flags, honking and joining in the fray.
“People were patient when this first hit and we’ve given it the time we needed to figure it out. We needed to allow the hospitals to gear up. But we’ve seen the data now and it needs to stop,” said Rob Joseph, also a former Salt Lake City police officer who now helps run Club Echo.
He said he gets a call every day from one of his 57 employees who is struggling to make ends meet and he doesn’t believe the government is doing what it can to help them, despite imposing the restrictions that it has.
“I’m making educated decisions,” Garner said, adding that everyone in her family has been taking extra vitamin C since before cases of the virus were reported in Utah. Her young children were also holding signs they made, stating: “Open our parks” and “I miss my friends.”
“It feels good to know we aren’t alone,” Garner said.
The Utah Business Revival is planning another rally in Vineyard on May 2, where Moutsos said local businesses are invited to set up booths to bring in some much needed money during this difficult time.