Utah governor tries to swat down coronavirus rumors about arrests, curfews

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert makes comments about the evolving economic situation associated with COVID-19, in a news conference at the Utah state Capitol, Friday, March 20, 2020.

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No, Utah will not jail people if more than 10 gather together.

“We expect people to follow that [social distancing] recommendation as best they can, but we’re not going to have the Gestapo looking for them,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Friday.

Rumors about coming curfews or a complete state shutdown are also false.

“There is no intent at the present time for any kind of curfew or quarantine or to lock up people. We want people to have as normal a life as they can possibly have.”

The state is even looking at ways to allow restaurants to offer limited sit-down service, or movie theaters to have small-audience showings.

Herbert stressed Friday that he is confident that Utah not only will weather this dark time but will come out stronger than ever — if residents do their part.

“There’s no reason to have the gloom and doom that’s out there,” he said at a Capitol news conference. “I’m optimistic we’re going to get through and come out stronger and better than ever before because we’re Utah — and we understand how to work together.”

Herbert called on Utahns to find ways to help each other — from donating to food banks to patronizing suffering restaurants and watching over shut-ins. But a little divine intervention couldn’t hurt, he said.

“I’ve sent a letter to all of our faith-based organizations to ask their congregations to unite in prayer” this weekend, the governor said.

“Let’s pray like everything depends on the Lord, but then let’s work like everything depends on us,” he said. “We have opportunities to go out there and help our neighbor, to find those who are vulnerable: the shut-ins, the elderly, those who could use a home delivery when you go to get groceries.”

Herbert said a miscommunication between government agencies on Thursday created an unintended message that made it sound like Utah had become a police state. Some county health departments passed ordinances to support Herbert’s earlier executive order banning assemblies of more than 10 people — and stressed that violators could go to jail.

“Our intent was to have this more of a voluntary compliance with these recommendations,” Herbert said. Orders are now being rewritten to make that clear, and to allow commonsense exceptions.

That’s probably good since more than 40 people were in the room at the Friday news conference where he announced it.

Executive orders will likely include some exceptions but won’t be exhaustive. “The government cannot really predict all the different scenarios and situations to put a rule in place for everything," Herbert said. "We expect that people will live within the spirit of the law and comply with the intent, with some flexibility.”

However, he said if serious violation occur, the state would revisit the issue and potentially criminalize violations.

While California and New York City have essentially ordered most people to stay home, Herbert said similar rumors about that in Utah are false.

“Rumors of a complete shutdown, bringing out the National Guard — those kinds of egregious activities — are, in fact, nothing more than rumors,” the governor said.

Toward that end, Herbert noted that his order to halt sit-down service in restaurants — but to allow take-out or delivery — had only a 14-day limit. He said the state, health officials and restaurants are looking at ways to allow some limited sit-down service after that period to help restaurants survive.

“We’re going to overcome this problem: Adapt, innovate, overcome. We can do that,” he said.

That includes looking at how and when movie theaters might offer some showings.

“Are there ways to make a movie theater work if we restrict the number of people who go there? Certainly we can do 10,” Herbert said.

Also, he said the state is studying many options to help people who have lost jobs, including potential ways to forgive rent temporarily or halt evictions.

Herbert encouraged residents not to lose hope and said needed essentials are in place.

“Cows are still producing milk in spite of the flu. Chickens are still laying eggs in spite of the flu. Manufacturers are still making toilet paper. We have a great supply of water,” he said. People “certainly don’t need to hoard anything.”

Herbert also said he believes Utah is better prepared than any state to survive challenges created by the coronavirus.

“We’re working our way through it probably better than any state in America. We have been prepared,” he said. “It is part of our culture.”