Cedar City • Rejected twice by Utah cities worried about the spread of the coronavirus, country singer Collin Raye finally took the stage in Cedar City Saturday night for what he called the most important show he’s ever done.
“This is more than a concert," he said as a crowd of thousands cheered. “This is a celebration of our freedom and not living in fear, and for moving forward.”
Utah Business Revival organizer Eric Moutsos organized the free event to protest COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and residents. Families began toting portable chairs and American flags into Iron Springs Resort late Saturday afternoon, many wearing shirts and caps bearing the flag and few wearing masks.
The economy of the southern Utah town, known as Festival City, has been battered since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Utah Summer Games and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. After Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens heard that the concert had been forbidden near Grantsville in Tooele County and denounced in Kaysville, he welcomed Raye and Moutsos with open arms.
Before celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri introduced Raye, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes rapped about how he chases “criminals down like a bloodhound.” Cozzens led cheers for law enforcement and for the armed forces.
Republican candidate for governor Greg Hughes turned to take a selfie with the audience, saying he “saw patriots in the crowd today.” And Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, whose City Council censured her for her support of hosting the concert there, told them: “I’m so jealous. I wish this party was happening in Kaysville right now.”
Hundreds of people had arrived in the event’s first hour, as food trucks and scores of businesses set up and began selling wares from hamburgers, corn dogs and tacos to jewelry to clothing — including shirts declaring “Straight Outta Quarantine” and “Make liberals cry again" and gear supporting President Donald Trump.
Concertgoer Rob Mckay of Saratoga Springs said he wanted to come to Cedar City to protest coronavirus restrictions, not because he’s a particular fan of Raye.
“People are out here because they want to be out with others," he said. "They want and need to be social because, if you were to engineer a society to self-destruct, you’d start by isolating people from their neighbors.”
He added: “I don’t care if I get COVID. I’d rather get COVID than be locked out of society.”
Gov. Gary Herbert announced that outdoor gatherings of 6,000 people would be allowed in the latest updates to state health restrictions Thursday. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported eight new cases of COVID-19 in Iron County on Saturday, bringing the total cases to 153 in the county.
“When the concert first came out, there was definitely some anxiety among some folks, and I think there still is,” said Cedar City Chamber of Commerce President Christopher McCormick.
“Overall, what I’m hearing is that this is a positive thing,” he added. “It’s not a perfect situation, but I don’t know how you go from no events to an event like this without sparking some anxiety. ... I can tell you a lot of people are ready to have some sense of normality, people long for that.”
Many families settled apart from one another, and Moutsos felt that the outdoor venue and the masks and hand sanitizer made available were enough to keep everyone safe. But if a COVID-19 outbreak were to come from the concert, would he feel responsible?
“I don’t feel responsibility, and the reason why is because we are safer than WalMart,” Moutsos said. “Instead of corralling everyone into WalMart, they can shop here. Ultimately, what does herd immunity mean? If it were up to me, we would have let the sick and old people stay in their house and gotten everybody else this virus at the very beginning.”
Moutsos estimated Saturday’s crowd at 5,000. He contrasted rallies he has organized to anti-racism protests and marches across the country declaring Black Lives Matter and demanding justice reform.
“We’re trying to save our businesses in contrast with some of these riots all over the country where they’re trying to tear down America — we’re trying to build up America and be safe at responsible at the same time," he said.
Danny Stewart, Cedar City’s economic development director, estimates that unemployment in Cedar City has risen to around 9%, up from 3.4% in March. The Shakespeare Festival pumps around $35 million into the economy, and the hospitality and food service industries have taken an especially hard hit since it was canceled on May 8, he said.
“For a lot of businesses, especially hospitality, their success depends on the summer,” Stewart said. “Those busy months from May to October carry them throughout the rest of the year.”
In a survey distributed to 81 small businesses by the Cedar City Chamber of Commerce, about 35% of owners said COVID-19 had a moderate impact on their 2020 income, and 42% said it had a high impact. Asked how long it would take to recover, 19.8% said it would take 10-12 months and 23.5% said it will take more than a year.
Some places, such as beloved restaurant Charlie’s Southern Barbeque, have not been able to recover. McCormick has been trying to secure grants for businesses deemed “nonessential” as he works from home, and he said one elected official has been quietly donating the position’s stipend to local restaurants.
“This is a very resilient area,” McCormick said. “There’s people with a lot of tenacity and drive who are creative enough to look at a situation and say, ‘How can we salvage this?’”
Southern Utah Museum of Art closed its doors for six weeks when COVID-19 shutdowns were announced in March, but held a soft reopening in recent days. “We can take creative risks with reopening,” said director Jessica Kinsey. “If it works great, if it doesn’t, fine. We’re very fortunate that way.”
The museum will reopen in three different phases. There are vinyl stickers on the ground to guide people through instead of allowing them to wander, an hour dedicated to allowing only high-risk guests to visit, and the donation box and sign-in book have been removed.
Utah Shakespeare Festival was not so lucky, and had to be canceled. Festival Director Frank Mack said that the organization usually sells around 100,000 tickets each summer, but will bring in no such revenue this year.
The financial impact “is serious,” Mack said. “But we have really wonderful supporters. Our patrons and donors have been massively generous because they want the festival to succeed and be back next year.”
Mack offered refunds to all those who purchased tickets, but many rejected his offer so the festival could keep the ticket sales as a donation.
Sara Penny, director of Cedar City Arts Council, said she considers the Stockdale Paradox to balance the harshness of current reality with optimism for the future. The paradox was named for Vietnam prisoner of war James Stockdale.
“The beautiful scenery in Cedar City is not going anywhere,” Penny said. “Eventually the arts will recover.”