CENTERVILLE — News of protests last fall outside the homes of two state health officials involved in shaping the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic struck George McEwan as wrong.
As he saw it, Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, and Joseph Miner, a top official at the Utah Department of Health, were doing their jobs as civil servants in advocating for measures like use of masks to curb the spread of the virus. Requirements on mask use were a particular point of ire for the protesters. And he had tough words for the demonstrators, deriding the decision of the “low-information individuals” to “terrorize” the Utah Department of Health employees at their homes.
But he didn’t stop with criticism. The Centerville City Council member decided to take steps to forestall the possibility of such protesting in Centerville, advocating for a measure prohibiting protesting and picketing right outside the private homes of targeted individuals. Last week, city officials unanimously approved the ordinance, joining Lehi and Spanish Fork, which passed similar rule changes last December.
“I don’t think anybody should be subjected to protesters standing out there screaming at them with placards and they’re at their home,” McEwan said during the Jan. 19 City Council discussion on the issue. “That is your refuge and that should be respected.”
Centerville Police Chief Paul Child expressed support for the change, calling it a tool for law enforcement to deal with potentially unruly situations. He foresees using the new law only when picketers are in clear violation of its guidelines.
“There’s a reason why people do that, because it’s extra impactful to the person and it disrupts their life. To me that’s something that is worth of protection,” Child said.
McEwan says there’s no inkling that Centerville will face the sort of protesting that occurred outside the homes of Dunn and Miner, in Salt Lake City and Springville, respectively. Protesters also gathered outside the Orem home of then-Gov. Gary Herbert, also stemming from COVID-19 guidelines.
Rather, in pursuing the ordinance, McEwan wanted to be proactive.
Per the change, picketers must stay at least 100 feet from the home of the person they’re targeting. That prompted discussion about the impact picketing, if it materializes, would have on those households 100 feet from the target of the protesters’ ire. Lisa Romney, the Centerville city attorney, viewed the 100-foot guideline as a compromise.
“It’s basically a balancing issue, balancing someone’s right to feel safe in their own home with the right to free speech and assembly,” she said. The U.S. Supreme Court, she said, has upheld the legality of such ordinances and Centerville’s mirrors others in Utah, including Orem.
Critics of mask mandates carried out the protesting around the homes of Dunn and Miner late last October, mainly using signs to express their distaste for being required to use face coverings. They gathered outside Herbert’s home in November. “End tyranny in Soviet Utah,” read one sign at an Oct. 29 protest outside Miner’s home. “Crimes against liberty,” read another.
The protesting last fall generated a sharp rebuke from Herbert, who focused his ire on the protesting outside Dunn’s home. The Utah Medical Association also chimed in, according to the Daily Herald newspaper.
“No civil servant should have to come home to protests,” Herbert said in a statement at the time. “I’m deeply disturbed that this has been Dr. Dunn’s reality this week. These protests are disgraceful and the organizers behind them should cancel all planned protests immediately.”