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Robert Gehrke: Coronavirus protests, like we saw in Salt Lake City, are misguided acts of defiance

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1,000 people protested the government mandated shutdown of businesses on the grounds of Salt Lake City Hall, Saturday. The protest was organized by Utah Business Revival aimed at Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilsonand Governor Gary Herbert policies on COVID-19 and social distancing, April 18, 2020.

“Give me liberty, or give me death … or some of both.”

That’s the sign I would’ve made if I had joined a thousand others at the Salt Lake City rally to protest government COVID-related restrictions intended to keep people safe.

Similar protests have been held across the country, in some instances apparently orchestrated by far-right groups, in others perhaps organic. Regardless of their origin, the themes are the same: Life ain’t worth much if they can’t go to work, and they’re perfectly willing to send someone’s parents or grandparents to an early grave to make it happen.

They want their liberty and don’t care much if it comes with a side of death.

Robert Gehrke

These folks argue they don’t need the government telling them what to do, or trying to keep them safe. Ideally, perhaps, they would be right. Because, ideally, they would behave rationally, aware of the danger society is facing and altruistic enough to do their part to alleviate the risk.

That’s not what we saw over the weekend, though. What was billed as a social distancing picnic didn’t have much in the way of food and even less in the way of social distancing.

What it did have was boundless hubris, utter disregard for anyone else’s well-being, and the kind of brazen, arrogant, misguided defiance we’ve grown to expect from the likes of special guest star Ammon Bundy (who has a reputation for not leaving when he’s not wanted, but this time took his hatful of bad ideas back home with him without incident).

Despite an order making it a class B misdemeanor to have gatherings of more than 10 people — designed specifically to prevent this type of disease-transmitting demonstration — Salt Lake City police stood on the sidelines.

Hard to blame them. When a group is this desperate for attention and eager for a confrontation, why give them what they want and risk endangering officers?

It does beg the question, frankly, of how an “order” is any different from the “directive” issued by Gov. Gary Herbert, or how either is any more than “polite suggestions.”

Since I brought up the governor, thank whatever divine being you pray to that Herbert isn’t running for reelection this year, because these protests also showed where the far-right fringe of this state stands — a population not dissimilar to the Republican Party delegates. A few days from the state convention, at least we don’t have reelection calculus and angry delegates driving bad decisions.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1,000 people protested the government mandated shutdown of businesses on the grounds of Salt Lake City Hall, Saturday. The protest was organized by Utah Business Revival aimed at Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilsonand Governor Gary Herbert policies on COVID-19 and social distancing, April 18, 2020.

None of this is to say that I’m unsympathetic to what these protesters are feeling. Nobody likes where we are now and nobody wants to see it continue.

We all want the stores and theaters and restaurants and bars and concert venues to open up again, too. And the barber shops! You should see my hair right now.

But I also understand that the reason that hundreds more Utahns aren’t dead isn’t because egg-head scientists and snowflake politicians or the lamestream media blew it out of proportion. It’s because we took drastic measures unlike anything in history to stop the pandemic and, the damndest thing happened: It worked.

We are already starting to see some of the restrictions eased. Hospitals can resume elective surgeries, state parks have reopened and counties have promised to ease restrictions starting May 1.

These protesters are so short-sighted or have such disregard for science that they can’t comprehend that flouting the guidance that has been proven to work jeopardizes all of the progress toward our common goals. The disease will spread, more people will get infected, restrictions reinstated and our return to normalcy will be delayed.

Sure. They’ll have their liberty, perhaps. And they’ll have death. And they still won’t have their jobs.

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