Utah governor says it’s the role of the county — not the state — to enforce COVID-19 orders

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City, May 7, 2020.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is punting to Davis County the question of what enforcement action, if any, should be taken against Republican Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt — who is also a congressional candidate in the 1st District — for openly defying his COVID-19 orders.

She is allowing a protest group to hold an outdoor concert by country music star Collin Raye on May 30 in a city park. She acknowledges it would violate new orders that limit gatherings there to 50 people but says it protects First Amendment rights and would help the state return to normal. Her opponents have called it political grandstanding that may threaten lives.

On Friday, Herbert spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt said it is not the role of the governor nor the state to take any action against the Kaysville concert.

“Enforcement of state health orders is carried out by local health departments,” she said. “In this instance, the Davis County Health Department has the responsibility to ensure this event and similar public gatherings hosted in the county are conducted in accordance with state orders.”

Brian Hatch, director of the Davis County Health Department, said officials in his department have not yet discussed what to do about the planned concert.

“Enforcement is a tricky thing to even talk about at the moment,” he said.

Hatch noted that some previous protests statewide — such as a rally at the Salt Lake City Hall in mid-April led by the same people who are organizing the Kaysville concert — also violated state orders, but no enforcement was attempted.

“This is just a concerning and somewhat of a difficult situation of balancing policy with how far we enforce policy when primarily what we’ve always tried to do is educate,” Hatch said.

He added that most “communities across the state have done fabulous at doing the right thing. There’s always been these individual little things that just kind of pop up and they are small enough in the bigger picture not to make a huge issue of it because the majority of our citizens, our communities are doing the right thing anyway.”

Hatch said violating the governor’s orders could bring criminal and/or civil penalties, but may not be that big for a one-time event.

Witt on Thursday defended her action, saying, “We have to start making steps toward normalcy. Yes, it violates the directive of the governor. It’s a protest, and we are allowing them the space to do that. I’m willing to be uncomfortable to stand up for our First Amendment rights.”

She also said organizers are asking people who attend to wear masks and use social distancing, so she believes it will be safe — and plans to attend.

Witt is in a four-way race for the GOP nomination in the race to replace retiring nine-term Rep. Rob Bishop. Others are Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson, businessman Blake Moore and former state commissioner of agriculture and food and ex-Weber County Commissioner Kerry Gibson.

They all criticized her move earlier as likely political grandstanding. Stevenson, for example, said, it “is a political maneuver. I think that’s sad. This COVID-19 situation is not a political situation that we play games with. People’s lives, people’s families could be impacted.”

The group sponsoring the concert at Barnes Park, Utah Business Revival, earlier issued a news release saying it will be one of the first in America amid COVID-19 restrictions.

It quoted Raye — who has 16 No. 1 country hits — saying, “I would be honored to come to Kaysville for the first live concert in America. Music is an extremely powerful tool to help heal our souls, especially in times of uncertainty.”

Eric Moutsos of Utah Business Revival said his group also recently organized an open-air market in Vineyard. He said, “If we can all stand in line waiting for toilet paper, we can certainly all shop safely in an open-air market and enjoy a country music legend, Collin Raye.”

The event will also have booths from “nonessential” businesses to interact with the public and sell goods.

“These businesses were previously considered nonessential, insofar as some were not on the list of those the government approved to be open during COVID-19,” Moutsos said. “At UBR, we believe all business is essential. It is a fundamental right all American citizens share to gather, work and safely interact, even in times of crisis.”