In separate rallies, Utahns protest mask mandate and demand in-person classes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started. The group protesting against masks being required in schools removed the social distancing tape on the chairs and filled the Utah County Commission room to over flowing, prompting Commissioner Tanner Ainge to call for a vote to adjourn the meeting in Provo, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Provo • As she walked up to the podium to speak, one of the moms grabbed a face mask and spit her gum out into it. “It’s garbage,” she shrugged, wadding it up. “It doesn’t work anyway. Not for me and not for my kids.”

A dad who spoke after her said he, too, doesn’t think the masks are effective, and said he’s pulling his kids out of school this fall if the state doesn’t lift its mandate requiring all K-12 students to wear a face covering. Another mother carried her 4-year-old son in her arms, noting there’s no way he would keep one on in his kindergarten class — but she thinks they’re stupid anyway, regardless of age.

Parent after parent followed at the Utah County commission meeting Wednesday afternoon, objecting for more than two hours to having their kids in masks even as counts of the virus continue to climb across the state, where there are more than 30,000 confirmed cases.

They packed into the small boardroom to talk, pulling tape off the seats meant to maintain social distancing and crowding in against the walls. They wore “Trump 2020” hats and carried little American flags, and every time someone said “freedom” or “constitutional rights” the whole room cheered. Almost no one wore a mask; those who did had them pulled under their chins.

“This mandate for the children to wear masks is baloney,” said Cynthia Harding, a Provo resident. “We have the right to make our own choices.”

Gov. Gary Herbert had issued the edict last week for masks to be required in schools after he earlier ordered them to open this fall. The move was largely met with applause from teachers and parents who say they feel it will keep those inside schools safe and slow the spread of the virus. But some are now starting to protest.

[Watch: Town Hall: Reopening schools in Utah]

On Wednesday, the state saw two separate rallies around education.

It kicked off in Provo and was followed, hours later, by a second in Salt Lake City. In the state’s capital, parents and students called on the Salt Lake City School District to get kids back in the classroom instead of continuing online, even as the area — the only location in the state — remains in the “orange,” or moderate, risk phase for the virus.

“It’s not fair,” one student said. “All of the schools around us get to go back. And we don’t.”

The biggest difference is the families pushing to return in Salt Lake City are willing to send their kids back in masks to make it happen. At the larger and louder rally in the more conservative Utah County, not having to wear them was the point.

About 150 residents there began with a gathering organized by Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee about 30 minutes before the commission meeting. The Republican leader has called for a “compassionate exemption” from the mask requirement for the thousands of students in Alpine, Provo and Nebo School Districts in the county. Parents, he believes, should choose whether their children wear a covering or not.

“I don’t like government mandates,” Lee said to claps and whistles from the crowd.

When he first walked out from the Provo courthouse, he had a light blue face covering on, saying it was required of him. Those outside chanted, “Take the mask off!” And he did.

Demonstrators carried posters that read “Don’t smother the children” and “Let kids be kids. No masks!” A few younger kids sat in strollers, adding to their parents’ cheers. Most clung to the small bits of shade on the sweltering day, but the heat didn’t deter them.

[Watch: Mother Jones reporter speaks about her ‘terrifying’ experience with masks at one Utah mall]

When a few counter-protesters showed up, with one man holding a sign that argued, “Wearing a mask is an act of compassion,” the group yelled and screamed.

“It’s an act of submission,” they said. “Jesus gives us a choice,” they added. “And mandates are against freedom.”

“You guys are at the wrong rally,” they shouted.

One mom and dad brought their two kids to challenge the anti-mask crowd, and a woman shouted: “Get that mask off that poor little boy.” Carrie Hall put her arm around her son to defend him.

“If we want this pandemic to go away, then we need to embrace masks,” she said. “We feel like wearing a mask is not only to protect ourselves but others.”

Her seventh-grader added, “I’d rather wear a tiny piece of cloth than spread COVID.”

Inside, tensions rose. When the meeting started, Commissioner Tanner Ainge declared he wouldn’t support so many people in the boardroom not social distancing. He made a motion to adjourn and hear the proposal from Lee another day in a bigger space. The board’s third member, Nathan Ivie, voted in favor and Lee against. After the 2-1 decision, Ainge walked out.

“This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing,” Ainge said, noting he’s written a letter supporting the governor’s mandate. “We should be physically distancing and wearing masks. This room is not complying with those health guidelines.”

A torrent of boos followed with shouts of “Down with Tanner Ainge” and “He’s trying to silence us” and “Vote him out.” One teacher said, “Our classrooms are fuller than this.”

After he left, Lee and Ivie agreed to listen to the residents voice their thoughts. They did not have a quorum to take vote. Still, more than 30 people lined up to talk.

Some said teachers wouldn’t be able to connect as well with their students if everyone was in masks. Others said they know of kids with anxiety or asthma who wouldn’t be comfortable wearing one. A few suggested that it didn’t matter because children are less likely to get COVID-19. (They can, however, still spread the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

One mom suggested that masks cut down on a person’s oxygen. A dad said it’s no different than the flu. Others compared it to the rates of heart disease. A grandmother said the virus isn’t real anyway (though there are more than 5,600 confirmed cases in Utah County).

“We are perpetuating a lie,” said Denna Robertson, 65, of Provo, who has five grandchildren. “COVID is a hoax. It’s a lie. It’s a political stunt.”

One man attacked Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, claiming she spreads misinformation and “doesn’t actually treat patients.”

Penny Brown added that she plans to homeschool her two kids — ages 10 and 3 — if the mandate stays in place. She worries about her oldest being taught to fear the world by wearing a mask. And she thinks neither of her kids will be able to properly socialize with others if their faces are covered; the emotional impact is her biggest concern.

“It’s going to rewire their brains,” she said. “I’m especially not going to send my son back to have his mind broken.”

She called the mask requirement “strenuous and overbearing and dystopian.” She also believes schools will be harming students by using too many harsh chemicals to fight the virus. “I’m not subjugating them to that crap,” Brown said.

Kathy Thompson, a teacher at Alpine Elementary, said she doesn’t want students to have to wear masks. She suggests they provide a false sense of security. Plus, she said, schools already tell students they can’t wear them on Halloween — “Why change that now?”

Most suggested that if people are at high-risk of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus, it’s up to them to wear masks — not healthy individuals. The rest, some speakers said, shouldn’t have their rights trampled on.

“I will not lose my freedoms over a mask, and I will not lose my freedoms to a controlling government,” one man shouted. “This is tyranny!” another added. One woman said her kids were being used as “political pawns.”

When a few spoke in favor of masks, the crowd largely shouted over them, too. Bayley Goldsberry, who will start her first year of teaching in the fall at Maple Mountain High School, said face coverings would help her feel safer. Her husband is also a teacher and between them, she added, they’ll pass by hundreds of students in a day.

“Wearing a mask is a minor inconvenience, if you can even call it that, and has been proven effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Those in the boardroom chanted at her: “No it hasn’t!” And a few told her to get a different job.

The rally in Salt Lake City

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students within the Salt Lake City School District rally for K-12 students to return in-person to school this fall, July 15, 2020.

Those rallying to the north in Salt Lake City largely supported teachers, though, and said that’s why they want their kids to return to the classroom in person — to be there and learn from educators. Most parents said they can’t take any more online school where students are missing their friends and sports and the work isn’t getting done.

“No one is learning online,” said Raina Williams, a mother of five, noting that 20% of students never logged in this spring when schools shut down. “Kids are getting lost. Nobody’s addressing that.”

Salt Lake City School District may be the only one in the state not welcoming students back in the fall with the city falling in the “orange” risk level for the virus. Under the status, schools are required to continue with remote learning. And only the governor can change that.

More than 100 demonstrators asked him to do that Wednesday, pledging to return safely. They held signs that said, “We love school” and “Don’t leave us behind.” And, unlike in Provo, everyone wore masks.

The district’s spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin responded, saying that many teachers and staff also want to return, but the district doesn’t have jurisdiction to decide — the state does.

“I don’t want parents to feel like we’re not hearing what they’re saying,” she said. “We’re trying our best to be mindful of the guidelines given to us by the state and local health departments.”

The district, too, Chatwin added “might be more restrictive, but we’ve been hit harder.”

Still, football players from the three main high schools — Highland, East and West — came dressed in their uniforms. Many talked about how their competitors 3 miles away will be able to play this fall when they might not.

Glenna Lotulelei, a mother of three, said her son’s going into his senior year and could lose out on athletic scholarships if he doesn’t play on the team. Grace Conde, a senior at Highland, added that she’s worried about academic scholarships.

“We’re competing for the same awards,” she said. “So we want to go back. But we promise to take precautions.”

Even if the district is moved down to the lower risk level of “yellow,” though, it still plans to have students there for one or two days a week. Many said that’s not enough.

The crowd called for options where students who need to stay home for health reasons can. But those who want to go to school or need school as a safe place can return full time. That is especially important, Williams said, for working parents, who are largely in communities of color in Salt Lake City.

“This is our education at stake,” added Voi Tunuufi, a student at East High.

Emily Bell McCormick and her husband both work, and they have five kids. It’s been a struggle, she said, trying to teach them on top of the demands of their jobs. Among their children, they were responding to 18 different teachers, including multiple for their oldest two in high school and middle school. And they’ve got two kids who are 5 years old.

“Families are burning out,” Bell McCormick said.

Her son, Welch McCormick, who’s going into fifth grade, added: “Online school is hard to motivate yourself to do. I just want to go back.”