SALT LAKE CITY — About 100 people met outside of the Utah Capitol Thursday evening to decry the possibility of increased coronavirus restrictions, including the suggestion of the state reverting back to its “orange” phase of responding to the pandemic.

The protesters walked around the base of the Capitol’s front steps a little after 5 p.m. as they waited for Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Hughes, the former Utah House speaker, to address the crowd. Some held signs condemning the idea of mandatory mask usage, while others leaned Hughes’ campaign signs against their chests as they conversed.

The majority were not wearing masks.

“This virus and the weight of the decisions that are being made are being felt solely on the shoulders and the backs of the working people of the state of Utah,” Hughes said to roars of approval from the crowd. “We’re feeling the full weight of this virus and it can’t be this way.”

Greg Hughes, gubernatorial candidate and former speaker of the Utah House, speaks during a rally at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 25, 2020. About 100 people decried the possibility of increased coronavirus restrictions. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

He told protesters there is no way forward without an economy, and urged the state to find other ways to have enough hospital beds without reverting back to the orange phase.

“What we have to do is take precautions the best we can,” he said. “We have to take smart precautions, but you know what? I just think you need to keep your liberties while you’re doing it.”

Utah is currently in its yellow risk phase of Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Leads Together response plan, meaning businesses in most parts of the state have been allowed to reopen, including opening swimming pools and the resumption of team sports.

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, told state and local leaders in a memo last Friday the state will need to move back into its orange — or moderate — risk phase if Utah doesn’t decrease its daily new COVID-19 case counts to no more than 200 a day by July. Cases have steadily been increasing over the last couple of weeks. Thursday marked the state’s third-highest daily case increase, with 590 new cases announced.

Acknowledging the “dramatic” increase in COVID-19 cases, Herbert urged Utahns to wear masks in public Wednesday, announcing that he is signing an executive order that will require masks in state buildings overseen by his office, including state offices, higher education facilities and liquor stores.

It was confirmed Thursday evening that the governor has approved requests from Salt Lake and Summit counties to make wearing a mask mandatory in businesses and gatherings.

Following Hughes’ speech, small business owners and others from the community took turns describing how restrictions have adversely impacted their lives.

“We can’t take for granted our small businesses,” said organizer Robyn Openshaw. “It is hard to run a business on a good day. When you don’t have the state in the way. Of telling you whether you can have a job today or not. Of telling you whether or not you can keep your 35 employees employed.”

She said many small businesses would not be able to survive reverting back to an orange response level.

While speakers cheered Hughes and implored the crowd to vote for him in the upcoming June 30 primary, cheers turned to boos as Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, were brought up.

Some protesters waved signs saying “Hughes stands for freedom” and “Utah Leads Together = Socialism.”

Openshaw urged the crowd to prevent Herbert and Cox from reverting the state back to the orange phase after the primary election.

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“Utah Leads Together is a euphemism and it’s a euphemism for socialism,” she said. “What socialism is is that the state dictates the terms for business. The state tells us whether we can go to work today. The state tells us how many employees we can have this week. The state tells us maybe we can go back to work next month. We just did that. I’m not doing that again.”

On Monday, Herbert acknowledged Dunn’s memo about the increase of COVID-19 cases, but said he doesn’t have plans to shut down Utah’s economy.

Openshaw told protesters she believes Herbert thinks reverting to the red phase is considered a shutdown, but orange would also significantly harm businesses.

The rally wrapped up around 6:45 p.m. with a call to action. Organizers urged the crowd to write to Herbert and Cox calling for the economy to remain open and for business to be unhampered.

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