How two 20-somethings and their dance parties helped set back Utah’s pandemic progress

(Photo courtesy Samuel Nii) Samuel Nii, left, and Kwaku El, pose in this undated photo. The two men run the promotions company called Young/Dumb.

The Instagram post began by saying the planned dance party for Aug. 7 in Provo was canceled due to health and safety concerns.

“However,” the post — as written — continued, “due to us not being little b****, we are replacing it with THE UNDERGROUND DANCE PARTY.”

The address in Provo was disclosed the day of the party to prevent any efforts to quash it, according to social media posts from the organizers, a company calling itself Young/Dumb. Admittance was $10.

A back-to-school dance party followed in Provo, the seat of Utah County, on Sept. 4. A week later, Young/Dumb tossed a masquerade party in neighboring Orem.

As the parties continued, so did the coronavirus cases. It’s difficult to pinpoint where anyone gets infected from such a communicable virus. A spokeswoman for the Utah County Health Department on Friday said it had no data showing how the dance parties affected the spread there.

This much can be said: The state was trending down from its midsummer peak when the Young/Dumb party was held in August. Friday, Utah County — with roughly half the population that Salt Lake County has — recorded 501 new infections. It’s the largest one-day spike any single county or regional health district in the state has recorded during the pandemic.

The story of Young/Dumb is a tale of two 20-something entrepreneurs catering to Utah County’s college scene — two major universities lie within just a few miles of each other — while defying the pleas of public health officials. It’s also about a county that has resisted the mitigation efforts that have slowed the spread elsewhere.

“Woke twitter—you lose. and you always will,” one of the company’s owners, Kwaku El wrote on Twitter after one of his parties. “distancing until we have a vaccine, our country will not repair itself. vaccines take years. we cannot take years of this economic destruction.”

The coronavirus spike in Utah County is causing its own economic problems. The Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University case counts more than doubled in a week, putting the academic year in jeopardy.

The BYU football team on Saturday was supposed to play Army in a contest that was to be broadcast on CBS. The Cougars canceled after the team reportedly had about 10 positive tests. It’s unclear whether the game will be rescheduled.

The federal government is requiring nursing homes in Utah County to test residents and staff twice a week due to a positive test rate of more than 10% in the county. Nursing home operators have said each round of tests cost them money and resources.

Switching parties

(Photo courtesy Samuel Nii) Samuel Nii gets low to the ground on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Nii is co-owner of the promotions company calling itself Young/Dumb.

Young/Dumb was incorporated in January of this year as Young and Dumb LLC. Filings with the Utah Department of Commerce list the owners as El and Samuel Nii. Both men, who appear to be in their early 20s, declined interview requests last week and instead referred to their social media posts.

El went to high school in Cypress, Texas. There, he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to a post on his blog.

He was a student at church-owned BYU by 2017. An article that year in the campus newspaper, The Daily Universe, listed El as the vice president of the college Democrats. A photo caption accompanying the article said he had been among the pickets at the Utah Capitol protesting President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries.

El also developed an online following making videos bearing his belief in Latter-day Saint teachings. Some of those videos have appeared on a YouTube program called “Saints Unscripted.” The show has been sponsored by the More Good Foundation, a nonprofit supporting Latter-day Saint messaging online.

El has a personal YouTube channel, too, where his videos have taken on church critics, referring by name to evangelicals and former Latter-day Saints who accused El of being an apologist who overlooked issues like where church scripture conflicts with scientific and historical consensus.

Meanwhile, El’s politics have moved right. In May, when it was clear former Vice President Joe Biden would be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, El tweeted he would rather vote for rock star Joe Jonas.

El finished the post with a hashtag that translates to “I don’t know but not Biden 2020.” In other tweets, El described himself as an independent, though in recent weeks, he has retweeted Trump and other conservatives.

El has said on social media his change was driven by concerns for human trafficking. He has accused Democrats of ignoring the issue.

Also on social media, El has complained about government efforts to control the pandemic through limits on businesses and mask mandates.

“There’s absolutely no way a government responsible for slavery, segregation, japanese internment camps, activist assassinations, monetary fraud, ‘mistakenly’ bombing Iraq, and Operation Paperclip (hiring Nazi leaders to NASA), could possibly lie to us about coronavirus,” El tweeted on May 14.

“Not even saying i buy into the conspiracy theories & stuff, but dang, blind obedience to the government? when has that ever been a good idea?”

El’s next tweet referenced stories in the Book of Mormon, the LDS Church’s signature scripture, in which conspirators worked in what were called “secret combinations” to bring down societies.

“One of the major elements that lead to the fall of the Jaredites and later Nephites were secret combinations,” El wrote.

Nii is from southeast Idaho. Beginning in 2018, he served a church mission in Chino Hills, Calif., according to social media posts.

Compared to El, Nii has had a much smaller, less combative presence on social media. There’s no record of him ever attending BYU, campus spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Thursday. She said El has not graduated from BYU and is not a current student.

BYU has said it has disciplined 15 students for failing to follow pandemic health guidelines. Throughout the pandemic, top LDS Church officials also have urged members to heed health edicts

Dancing your life away

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get it, it was a MASK-QUERADE 🤪

A post shared by Young/Dumb (@youngdumbofficial) on

Young/Dumb’s marketing materials portray it as party promotion company tailored to Latter-day Saint college students. Instead of alcohol, the parties serve mocktails. Social media photos show that while party attendees don’t look like they are dressed for church, they also aren’t wearing clothing as risqué as seen in nightclubs in Salt Lake City or Park City. Lots of people are wearing T-shirts and jeans or long skirts.

Nii and El threw their first Young/Dumb party in fall 2019. When the pandemic started in Utah, the parties stopped. Much of the country debated how to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In June, Salt Lake and Summit counties implemented a mask mandate. The state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, has credited the requirements with slowing infections. Utah County residents and politicians resisted such rules.

In a July 15 meeting that drew the attention of national news outlets, people who said they didn’t believe masks were effective in slowing the spread ignored physical distancing guidelines and filled a County Commission meeting in Provo, where the commissioners voted 2-1 to end the meeting early.

Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started, Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Provo, Utah. The group protesting against face 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. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

When Young/Dumb restarted its parties in August, Utah County was in the yellow, or low-risk, phase of the state’s pandemic guidelines. Groups were supposed to be less than 50 with everyone 6 feet apart and wearing face coverings. There were no legal mechanisms to enforce those guidelines.

Social media posts from the Young/Dumb parties have shown few people wearing masks and shoulder-to-shoulder dancing. El and Nii have said on social media they told attendees to wear masks, offered hand sanitizer and divided some parties into one area for dancing and another for socializing.

Young/Dumb also has made clear that it was going to let the partygoers make their own choices on how to protect themselves.

“We decided this choice was fair,” El wrote on Facebook after the Aug. 7 party at a warehouse in Provo that drew criticism on social media, “given multiple large gatherings had occurred in Provo and surrounding cities for weeks and days preceding our party.”

El noted those gatherings included Black Lives Matter protests, farmers markets, youth sports, amusement parks and rodeos. He asked why those events received so little discussion for their public health implications when his parties did.

The Young/Dumb party on Aug. 7 did what thousands of statewide infections and about 400 deaths to that point had not done — it motivated Provo leaders to implement a mask ordinance. Provo Municipal Council Chairman George Handley, according to the Daily Herald, cited the party and the pending return of college students to the city as a reason a mandate was needed.

The City Council finalized a mask ordinance Aug. 27, overriding a veto from Mayor Michelle Kaufusi.

Provo police noted the mask requirement about 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 4, when they responded to a Young/Dumb party. A police report noted several complaints about a “huge party, no masks” in a building at 355 W. 100 North.

The report, which The Salt Lake Tribune obtained through a public records request, also said the fire marshal was concerned. There was one exit for what might have been more than 100 people, according to the police report, which also implies tables and chairs were obstructing the egress.

The report says Young/Dumb agreed to end the party early. There’s no record anyone received citations.

Orem, where El and Nii had the masquerade party the following weekend, has no mask mandate. The city is home to Utah Valley University.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians exit the bus in downtown Provo on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020.

Sue Jackson is a professor and head of the Department of Public and Community Health at UVU, where she’s also helping trace COVID-19 infections and advising campus administration. She said no students are reporting to her that they are getting sick at dance parties. The common story, she said, is that they hang out in a friend’s apartment and then everyone who was there contracts the virus, and so do their roommates.

Yet, Jackson says it’s likely the parties help spread COVID-19. She would advise cities to break up such gatherings, but says an educational campaign is also needed to dissuade young people — who are at low risk for complications from the virus — from participating in group activities.

“I do feel for them,” Jackson said of young adults. "This is their college experience. They want to hang out. They want to have roommates. I can understand that.

“But there is an inherent risk in that kind of behavior.”

FOX 13 reported Utah County leaders had a phone conference Friday to discuss ways to slow the spread, including, perhaps, a countywide mask ordinance.

Editor’s note FOX 13 and The Salt Lake Tribune have a content-sharing relationship.