Judge orders halt to Tooele County protest concert, and organizers vow to find other last-minute venue

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) About 1,000 people protested the government mandated shutdown of businesses on the grounds of Salt Lake City Hall on April 18, 2020. A judge on Friday blocked a protest concert in Tooele County sought by the same organizers.

Organizers of a concert that aims to defy and protest COVID-19 restrictions argued during hours of testimony Friday that it wouldn’t really threaten health much, but 3rd District Judge Dianna Gibson disagreed — and issued a preliminary restraining order to block it.

Concert organizers refused to say under oath if they will comply with that, or proceed anyway.

“I don’t know,” said Eric Moutsos, who scheduled the concert Saturday with country star Collin Raye at the Amphitheater at Studio Ranch near Grantsville.

He later posted on Facebook, “Tomorrow is going to happen, we just don’t know where yet.” A post on The Amphitheater at Studio/Ranch page also said the concert wasn’t happening there.

Paxton Guymon, attorney for venue owner Jason Manning, asked the judge to skip the restraining order and "let my client’s actions play out. … If my client’s actions tomorrow result in a violation of the health department’s order, we’ll deal with the consequence of enforcement there. They [officials] have the right to pursue a class B misdemeanor or impose a fine.”

Tooele County Attorney Scott Broadhead said, “That’s a bad rationale. If someone is pointing a gun at you and has his finger on the trigger, don’t say, ‘Well, we can’t stop you until you fire.’ ... This is a pandemic. It is serious.”

The judge agreed.

“There is a real risk that this event could be facilitating uncontrolled spread of the COVID-19 virus to thousands of people,” she ruled. “This event now under these circumstances creates an unnecessary health risk to Tooele County citizens and all citizens of Utah.”

She said the state and county have a right to restrict gatherings during a pandemic and that it does not violate constitutional rights to assembly. She said organizers also lack needed permits for the concert, which by itself was enough for a restraining order.

During 2½ hours of testimony on whether a temporary restraining order should become permanent, concert organizers argued the concert would be no more dangerous than shopping at a Walmart or attending bicycle motocross races that Tooele County is allowing at its Deseret Peak Complex this weekend with hundreds of spectators.

Manning, the amphitheater owner, said it is on a remote 40-acre site that easily allows social distancing, and it would provide hand-washing stations, sanitizer, portable restrooms, face masks and other steps to ensure safety — and figures it is as safe as the bicycle races this weekend at the county facility.

“I don’t understand why they can look me in the eye and say that’s OK” to have motocross races at a county facility with “all these people, but your [event] isn’t” allowed, Manning said.

Tooele County Health Department Executive Director Jeff Coombs said the race facility is built to handle large crowds and has plans on how to handle them and how to take steps for social distancing and allowing contact tracing — but the concert venue has supplied no such information and is now little more than a stage surrounded by a berm facing fields of sagebrush.

Guymon said the county refused to let his clients apply for a temporary mass gathering permit, so they could not provide such information. Broadhead replied they were not allowed to apply because they could not qualify under current restrictions and would not have applied 30 days in advance as required.

Moutsos said his group has held several protests with more than 1,000 people, and no attendees have ever contracted the virus — which he said shows outside gatherings are safe. Broadhead said the statement can’t be verified because no real tracking occurred.

Broadhead also said it is silly to argue that the concert would pose no threat when governments globally have stopped such gatherings and declared that COVID-19 is spread when groups gather and talk, sing, yell and spread droplets on one another. They would not only endanger themselves, but also others they meet later.

“It’s a threat to the whole state of Utah,” he said.

Moutsos moved the planned concert to Grantsville after an attempt to hold it in Kaysville created a political firestorm there.

Mayor Katie Witt — who is running for Congress in the 1st District — supported and praised the protest concert planned initially for a Kaysville park. She said she saw that as a move to protect the right to protest, while critics said it would recklessly endanger residents.

The Kaysville City Council revolted against the mayor, and told Moutsos it would turn on sprinklers during the concert and would cut power. It also passed a resolution denouncing the concert and the mayor’s actions to support it.

“It was a direct threat,” Moutsos said last week “What I want to do now is have our next rally in our swimsuits in Kaysville’s Barnes Park because it’s absolutely ridiculous that the City Council did what it did to the people of Kaysville and Mayor Witt, and they should be ashamed.”

The City Council had a special hourlong session last week to allow residents to comment on the situation. A long parade of them denounced the concert and the mayor, and only one spoke in favor of them.