Governor tells Salt Lake and Utah counties to drop criminal penalties for gatherings of 10 or more

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert doesn't want Utahns to gather in groups of 10 or more, but he doesn't want to impose criminal penalties on those who do.

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Salt Lake County amended an earlier public health order on Thursday to add a restriction on gatherings of 10 or more people. Those who violated this order could be charged with a crime.

The county health department took the action two days after a similar move was made by the state, which also restricted dine-in service at restaurants, bars and other places serving food.

But Gov. Gary Herbert believes the county went too far.

While Herbert previously issued a “general prohibition” on gatherings of 10 or more, the governor’s office doesn’t want people to fear they’ll be arrested.

So late Thursday, the governor requested that both Salt Lake and Utah counties repeal their orders restricting gatherings of 10 or more people. While Salt Lake County’s order mentioned a potential misdemeanor charge, Utah County’s, issued Wednesday, did not.

He said the state was not consulted by the counties and in a tweet added, “We call upon all people to act rationally and with the good faith and commonsense that has defined our state and her people since its beginning."

In explaining the governor’s decision, Herbert’s Chief of Staff Justin Harding said, "The state of Utah and the local departments of health are working in good faith to navigate these [challenging] times. We regret the misunderstanding regarding these recent orders issued by Salt Lake County and Utah County. The state of Utah doesn’t support the inclusion of criminality penalties in these orders.”

In a statement late Thursday, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office said it would not be issuing citations to people in small gatherings.

“Recent media coverage has highlighted that a violation of this Health Department Order is a Class B misdemeanor," the statement read. "This information is true; however, Sheriff [Mike] Smith has stated that he will not be instructing deputies to enforce this order through issuing citations at this time.”

Still, the governor doesn’t want groups larger than 10 to congregate between now and April 1.

“We think there is much good that could be accomplished in stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus if the public followed these guidelines voluntarily," Harding said.

The governor’s office was worried the orders could be interpreted to mean a business with more than 10 employees must shut down. Harding said those businesses following “practices of appropriate social distancing” should continue to operate during the outbreak.

“Utah is still open for business,” he said.

Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said earlier in the day that since Salt Lake County’s previous order had only prohibited gatherings of 50 or more, the county needed to move to comply with the state’s Tuesday order.

The amended order, he said, like the state’s, was intended to keep people at least 6 feet away from one another to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

“By state law, a locality cannot be less restrictive than the state. Therefore, today, in order to be in legal compliance with the state’s order, Salt Lake County simply mirrored the state order and did not add any additional limitations,” he said.

Rupp said that the order would not have banned more than 10 employees working in the same building as long as they were at least 6 feet apart or in different rooms. The same logic applies to grocery stores or parks.

“The goal is to prevent one person’s respiratory droplets from another person’s immediate vicinity,” Rupp said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said people hosting small get-togethers at their homes shouldn’t worry about police barging in to break it up (although he cautioned the importance of social distancing in such situations).

Instead, this public health order was meant to restrict groups of people from different places coming together and creating a “petri dish” for transmission of the virus.

Underlying all public health orders up to this point has been the possibility that violators could be charged with a misdemeanor, as outlined by Utah law, but Gill said the county order mentioned the possible punishments to be clear what’s at stake.

“This isn’t a suggestion. This isn’t at your discretion,” Gill said earlier Thursday. “This is what is expected of everybody.”

Following the order, Utah’s 3rd District Court Presiding Judge Mark Kouris canceled all criminal court proceedings for 14 days. The move impacts courthouses in Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties.

Earlier in the week, Utah’s Chief Justice Matthew Durrant ordered all nonessential court proceedings be postponed, but had allowed other cases to go forward. Kouris’ Thursday order will cancel those matters for now.

Editor Matt Canham contributed to this article.