Hundreds of Utahns report social distancing violations using new hotline

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People observing social distancing in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Throngs of happy, hugging families standing shoulder to shoulder at the airport to welcome returning missionaries.

Hundreds of smiling, sun-seeking walkers strolling the Capitol grounds to delight in the blooming cherry blossoms.

Hordes of laughing, backpack-toting hikers jamming trailheads to savor Utah’s easily reachable outdoor riches.

There was a time when all of these scenes were routine, innocent, even celebrated. No more. Since COVID-19 arrived in Utah, they have drawn scorn.

Hundreds of Utahns have reported people and businesses for failing to follow the new guidelines on social distancing and hygiene, according to government agencies.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Sunday, March 22, 2020, photo, hundreds of people gather to welcome missionaries returning home from the Philippines at the Salt Lake City International Airport.

The Salt Lake County Health Department received 390 complaints from March 16 through Tuesday morning. Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said the complaints have come through an online form and led to the closing of four businesses that were on the list of establishments that must be shut down.

In addition, complainants often report personal behavior that can’t be verified by the time the health department visits.

“Some businesses report that their competitors are doing wildly inappropriate things,” Rupp wrote in an email. “And some complain about their fellow customers not social distancing in store aisles and the like.”

Salt Lake City spokeswoman Lindsey Nikola said the city has received about 60 complaints via a form it placed online about failure to social distance.

Salt Lake City police spokesman Greg Wilking estimated his department has received a handful of calls about people not social distancing. Wilking said if officers don’t have other calls to respond to — like, say, violent felonies — they might go ask the subjects of the complaint to keep separated.

Wilking and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said they were unaware, as of Tuesday, of any citations being issued over failure to social distance.

“There really hasn’t been a major issue,” Wilking said, “and we haven’t had any enforcement around it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign at Alta Ski Resort encourages people to social distance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

Unified Police Department Sgt. Melody Gray said Wednesday that UPD officers have received 55 complaints alleging violations of the county’s public health order.

Such reporting — or requests to report — has drawn its own criticism. Eric Moutsos, a former Salt Lake City police officer, is planning a rally at 5 p.m. Saturday in Salt Lake City to protest Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s creation of the online form people can use to report people breaching social distancing guidelines.

“We are asking for Mayor Mendenhall to immediately discontinue the constitutionally defective ‘snitch on your neighbor hotline’ and to task the good men and women of Salt Lake City’s law enforcement agency to return to protecting and serving without trampling the rights of members of this community,” Moutsos wrote in his announcement of the protest.

He said the location of the rally will be announced on his Facebook page 30 minutes before its scheduled start. The post asks attendees to keep 7 feet apart.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neighbors in Midvale take part in a social distance yoga session, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

‘Morally sound ground’

Even before the coronavirus spread across the globe, a body of research existed on whether or when people should blow the whistle when they see social norms or rules being violated.

Jeff Lockwood, professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming, said when people see behavior that is endangering the public health, there is an ethical obligation to report it.

“We are on morally sound ground,” Lockwood said in a telephone interview, “if and when we report a failure of others to abide by social distancing. I might even go so far as to suggest we are morally obligated to do so in order to protect the health and well-being of our vulnerable neighbors.”

So should we assume every gathering of 10 people at a park is violating social distancing guidelines, or might we refrain on the chance that, especially in a place like Utah that tends to have larger households, the group members live together anyway?

Lockwood said individuals should still report, and let the authorities sort it out.

“All the reporter is doing is communicating a reasonable presumption of danger,” Lockwood said. “I’m assuming they’re not rushing in and adding an 11th person to make a citizen's arrest.”

Opposing values

Bryan Stikeleather, an assistant professor in the accounting department at the University of South Carolina, offers a nuanced view. His research on whistleblowers said the ethics depend on whether someone places a greater value on safety or freedom.

People with a libertarian mindset likely would let the social distancing offense go, Stikeleather said. Others would consider the offenses unethical and make a report.

“They’re probably going to generate a lot of controversy,” Stikeleather said of the people who report, “and they’re probably not going to be a unifying force. They’re going to be driving a wedge between those two folks.”

That doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t create reporting avenues, Stikeleather added. He suggests that having hotlines to take complaints, for instance, dissuades would-be violators from engaging in certain behaviors.

“You don’t want to risk congregating out in public,” he said, “because you’re afraid someone’s going to call on you."