Utah health officials issue stern rebuke after hundreds greet LDS missionaries at airport in defiance of coronavirus warnings

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When officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chartered five flights to evacuate more than 1,600 missionaries out of the Philippines due to the coronavirus, Salt Lake City International Airport spelled out ground rules for their arrival:

Two people could greet each missionary, and they had to wait at their cars.

Instead, hundreds of people gathered Sunday with balloons and welcome signs in the short-term parking garage at the airport, heedless of health officials’ pleas to avoid crowds larger than 10.

[Read more: This shows which returning LDS missionaries will be released or reassigned]

Missionaries, who had been ordered by the church to isolate themselves from their families for 14 days upon return, were swept into hugs. Some pulled off their masks to greet their well-wishers as children and seniors alike mingled in the scrum.

Public officials balked at the lack of caution as video footage and images of the crowd circulated to broad disapproval on social media Sunday night.

“This is not OK,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a video Monday. “This is the way the disease spreads. We are working with the airport and the church ... to create a strategy and make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Airport administrators began making arrangements with church officials and Delta Air Lines for the missionaries’ arrival last week, when the church chartered enormous Boeing 777s to fly missionaries out of the Philippines, said airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer. The church announced last week it was sending home missionaries there as government officials shut down travel in and out of Manila.

Aircraft that size typically do not land in Salt Lake City, and airport officials tried to restrict traffic for what would be an unprecedented surge in international arrivals amid a pandemic.

“We had asked that people are limited to two people per missionary," Volmer said, “and to stay by their cars until the missionary came."

Church officials sent an email Saturday to all stake presidents (regional lay leaders) to pass along to parents, outlining the rules for picking up missionaries from the Philippines, said church spokesman Daniel Woodruff.

“SLC Airport Protocol (MUST BE ADHERED TO EXACTLY),” the message warned.

Although the message did not address a two-guest limit, it did advise parents that “only one vehicle is permitted for picking up each missionary.”

“For the safety of your missionary, your family, and other travelers at the airport," the message read, “please remain in your car until your missionary comes to your vehicle in the short-term parking garage.”

Woodruff acknowledged that those guidelines weren’t followed. He said he didn’t know whether stake presidents failed to communicate the protocol to all families of returning missionaries — or whether some families received the notice but ignored it.

The church’s directions said missionaries exiting from their planes would be steered through the terminals by airport staffers to the second level of the short-term parking garage.

Volmer said rumors that airport workers were directing missionary families to congregate are untrue.

“The church had sent out about two dozen volunteers to help with directing people and keeping them in the garage," Volmer said. “They had told us that in advance. They were pretty strict about keeping people to their cars, although that didn’t happen. Families ended up congregating.”

Woodruff said he did not know the role of church volunteers or employees in managing the crowd or whether they were overwhelmed. Volmer did note that Salt Lake City received more arrivals than expected; a tower closure in Las Vegas forced some passengers to reroute to Salt Lake City.

In all, about 900 of the 1,600-plus missionaries made their final stop at the Salt Lake City airport, Volmer said; the rest had connections elsewhere.

After the flights arrived and images of the welcome party began to circulate online, church officials issued another statement urging parents to go to the airport alone to pick up missionaries and instructing missionaries to limit contact with others and stay in a well-ventilated room, “preferably alone," for 14 days when they return home.

“Really disappointed in the behavior we saw from missionary families at the SLC airport tonight,” Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted. “I get it, I’ve been there (and still have a child serving), but this is unacceptable. In a time of shared sacrifice, we must do better to save lives. #SocialDistancing."

Footage of the celebration at the airport prompted dismay from many Utahns on social media, who worried such a crowd would lay waste to the gains from the state’s extensive social distancing efforts. Schools have been dismissed statewide, all restaurants and bars have suspended dine-in service, and telecommuting has become the norm for many of those not laid off.

If large welcome crowds continue, they will undo the community’s attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, agreed state epidemiologist Angela Dunn.

“Those types of gatherings cannot be happening. That will cause the spread of COVID-19,” Dunn said. “We’re in this for the long haul. These social distancing measures will have to be a way of life.”

But, Dunn said, there is “no contemplation of more strict or stringent health orders” as a result of Sunday’s celebrations at the airport.

The church has alerted airport officials that more missionary arrivals are pending, Volmer said, but Woodruff would not say how many and referred only to a previous statement that the numbers would be “substantial.

“Apparently there are some chartered and commercial flights with additional missionaries,” Volmer said. “We want to get the message out to the families: only two people should go to the airport to greet people.”

That goes even if just one or two missionaries are on a flight.

City and church leaders formally agreed Monday to restrict airport welcomes to one vehicle per missionary.

Airport security officers “will be monitoring adherence to the guidelines,” city officials wrote. " ... Lives are on the line," Mendenhall said in a news release, “and every precaution must be taken to help stop the quick spread of this dangerous illness.”

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins described the agreement as “common-sense measures that reflect what we have previously directed families to do.”

Latter-day Saint leaders for the Utah area also expressed “deep concern” Monday about the mass airport greetings and urged local lay leaders to help members “understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic [and] the importance of practicing safe social distancing.”

But even if all incoming missionaries and their loved ones abide by the airport’s guidelines in the future, other Utahns fear that families who failed to socially distance for just an hour at the airport were unlikely to abide by instructions from health officials and the church to quarantine for two weeks.

“Parents, please pick up your missionary from the airport alone and help them strictly follow self-quarantine procedures for their first 14 days at home,” tweeted Sen. Mitt Romney, who is self-isolating after being in contact with a fellow senator who tested positive. “We need to work together to keep our communities safe.”

Romney on Facebook called the reunion “irresponsible.” Gov. Gary Herbert described large gatherings as “dangerous.”

“As missionaries return home due to the spread of COVID-19 across the globe," Herbert tweeted, “they should not be met by big groups of family or friends.”

The scoldings from state officials were met with some pushback — especially because Herbert last week ordered Salt Lake County not to prosecute those who violate public health orders to limit gatherings to fewer than 10 people.

“Do something about it," state Sen. Derek Kitchen retorted to Cox. "You & Guv are willing to force restaurants (like me!) into bankruptcy but won’t take meaningful action to stop this behavior. At current rate we can expect ~60k+ deaths in Utah. Disappointed? Yea me too.”