Jana Riess: Please stop meeting Latter-day Saint missionaries at the airport

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bonnie Blad takes a selfie with her son Elder Alex Blad, who just returned form the Philippines, at the Salt Lake International Airport, Sunday, March 22, 2020.

While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been quick to act to limit the potential damage of the coronavirus, some of its members have not followed the faith’s example.

On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered at the Salt Lake City International Airport to welcome missionaries who had been serving in the Philippines.

These people are not practicing social distancing, despite a state public health order, in place until at least April 1, that has prohibited any gatherings of more than 10 people and instructed residents to avoid any unnecessary social visits. Apparently those who went to the airport were asked to maintain a six-foot distance from one another. Instead, it’s clear from the photos that some were crowded together en masse, jockeying for position to be the first to cheer for their beloved missionaries.

Some people may have thought this was fine because “most” of the missionaries had already been in isolation for two weeks before their flights home. Therefore most of them would not be carrying the coronavirus.

But the missionaries were not tested for the virus, so it’s all too possible that at least a few were infected but asymptomatic. It’s also possible that even those who had been in successful self-isolation before leaving the Philippines picked up the virus while traveling home. And because of the mass gathering at the airport, upon arrival they could infect not just their own families but others as well.

People, we are smarter than this. I can understand the excitement of greeting a returned missionary. I also understand how invincible people feel when they’re in their late adolescence — a sense of power that, on the missionaries’ side at least, is compounded by the fact that the virus is not targeting people their age and they have been doing the Lord’s work. That’s like a triple whammy of perceived invulnerability. For 18- and 19-year-olds, that kind of behavior is predictable and almost understandable. But their parents?

Of course there is a sense that we want, as much as possible, to keep life normal. It’s normal for the Salt Lake City airport to be crammed with people who are beaming with pride and expectation as they await their missionaries.

But these are not normal times, and we need to get used to that fact quickly.

I’m grateful that the church was swift to issue additional, 100% clear instructions that should prevent such further airport gatherings. Going forward, only parents are supposed to go to the airport to pick up their missionaries. No grandparents, younger siblings, or family friends.

Afterward, the missionaries themselves need to avoid “leaving their homes for any reason” should “stay in a well-ventilated room, preferably alone” or at least six feet away from other family members.

But what’s frustrating is that the church already issued stringent guidelines about how missionaries were to be picked up at the Salt Lake City airport, with the all-caps designation “MUST BE ADHERED TO EXACTLY.”

[The following is from The Salt Lake Tribune]

“For those missionaries arriving into SLC who are not traveling onto another destination, parents should follow this SLC Airport protocol. When you come to the airport, please park on the second level of the short-term parking garage. Missionaries disembarking from the planes will be directed through the terminals by airport staff to the second level of the short-term parking garage. (Do not drive to the pickup area on the ground level.) Due to space constraints, only one vehicle is permitted for picking up each missionary. For the safety of your missionary, your family, and other travelers at the airport, please remain in your car until your missionary comes to your vehicle in the short-term parking garage.”

It’s possible that this instruction to stake presidents was not disseminated widely or quickly enough to prevent what happened. There’s certainly a lot of confusion these days as people try to keep up with rapidly changing circumstances. But it’s also possible that some excited family members got the memo and chose to ignore it.

Look. We’re expecting thousands of missionaries to return home in the coming weeks from points all over the globe, and we need to be sensible. Serving a mission does not give a person some kind of special immunity from spreading a deadly virus to vulnerable people. Viruses are not respecters of persons when it comes to whom they would like to infect. They would like to infect everyone, thank you!

And they love nothing more than when people make that easier through mass gatherings like these.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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