KAYSVILLE — The debate over the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic has spilled into the race for the 1st District U.S. House.
Kaysville Mayor Katie Witt, one of six hopefuls in the race, is lending support to a Utah Business Revival-planned country music concert at a Kaysville park, potentially running afoul of state and Davis County health guidelines meant to assure social distancing. Utah Business Revival decries government directives meant to curb the coronavirus as excessive and an unnecessary detriment to the economy. The Kaysville concert, set for Saturday, May 30, is the latest in a series of events it’s sponsored to spread the message.
Witt, a conservative Republican, expressed accord with Utah Business Revival’s message about promoting business, hit hard nationwide by coronavirus restrictions that have kept people out of restaurants and stores. “Definitely, I do believe we need to reopen America,” she said.
Witt also echoed some of the more political aspects of the group’s messaging — that coronavirus restrictions limiting large group gatherings verge on violating free speech and assembly rights. Such concerns and accusations have been fodder for protests around the country.
Allowing the concert to occur and go forward “is a First Amendment issue,” she said. The aim of the May 30 event, she went on, is “to create space where (participants) can safely express their opinions and be able to freely assemble. ... I’m holding back the water and allowing them to hold their event in Kaysville.”
Holding the event, featuring country singer Collin Raye and to be held in Barnes Park, could break government directives meant to prevent large gatherings, she acknowledged. “That’s what a protest is,” she went on.
News of the plans, announced in a Utah Business Revival press release on Thursday, drew a rebuke from some of her competitors in the U.S. House race. Four Republicans are vying for the Northern Utah seat: Witt, Bob Stevenson, Kerry Gibson and Blake Mooore, along with two Democrats, Jamie Cheek and Daren Parry. They face off in their respective primaries on June 30.
“To me, this is a total political maneuver by Katie Witt,” said Stevenson, a member of the Davis County Commission.
He noted COVID-19 health guidelines prohibiting assemblies of large people and expressed concern at the prospects of an event like the concert causing a bump in coronavirus cases. An earlier Utah Business Revival event in Vineyard drew 4,000 to 5,000 people, estimates Eric Moutsos, the group’s leader, though they came at staggered times over the course of several hours and were spread around a large open area.
“There are no mass gatherings,” Stevenson said. “Mass gatherings are out.”
Parry, councilman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, expressed skepticism about politicizing COVID-19 guidelines, crafted jointly in Utah by health officials and political leaders.
“I trust the science. When the scientists say here’s what we need to do, I trust them. I think they know better than politicians, to be honest,” he said. As leader of a tribal group, he also noted with concern the outsized impact the coronavirus has had on the Navajo Nation and other minority communities.
Cheek, a rehabilitation counselor from Ogden, warned against “giving in to political pressure and public sentiment” on the COVID-19 matter. Moving too quickly in opening the economy now, she said, risks more economic damage later if there’s a second outbreak of the disease.
“Katie Witt is making a mistake in defying Gov. (Gary) Herbert’s already very-relaxed guidelines in approving this gathering at the end of the month. She is making this decision out of political opportunism and is not following scientifically vetted recommendations related to social gatherings,” Cheek said. “Utah deserves better than political stunts that risk the health and well-being of our great state.”
Moore, who works for a management consulting firm and lives in Salt Lake City, lauded the measures Utah officials have implemented thus far to curb the coronavirus’s spread, singling out the involvement of the private sector.
“We’ve had excellent leadership in our state and aggressive leadership. Like so many things, Utah’s led the charge,” he said. Witt’s involvement in the planned concert “feels very much like a political stunt and we can’t have this type of leadership because we’re getting on the track.”
Gibson, a former Weber County commissioner from west Weber County, said dealing with the COVID-19 situation requires a balanced approach.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging crisis on all levels. Right now, we need to get the economy back going immediately. I am confident we can do that without political grandstanding and with the proper health safeguards, but never at the expense of our civil liberties,” he said.
‘NOT A GOOD IDEA’
Herbert announced Thursday that much of the state, including Davis County, where the concert is to be held, would transition on Saturday to a lower-risk phase of the state’s COVID-19 response guidelines. He cited lower COVID-19 infection rates, and Witt echoed that, saying the data “shows we’re in a safer position.”
Even so, Isa Perry, spokeswoman for the Davis County Health Department, expressed concern.
“Our department’s position is it’s just too early to do something like this. It’s concerning because it could just roll back all the work,” Perry said, alluding to measures implemented thus far to keep the coronavirus in check. If someone participating in the event were to subsequently test positive for COVID-19, she said, health officials would have to advise everyone who had taken part to monitor their symptoms as a precaution.
Witt has been in touch with Davis County Health Department reps on the plans, Perry said. But, she added, the lower-risk phase of the COVID-19 response plan that takes effect Saturday prohibits temporary mass gatherings. Smaller assemblies could theoretically be allowed, but organizers of the events would have to present plans aimed at assuring social distancing to minimize the threat of the coronavirus’ spread. As of Friday morning, those involved in the planned Kaysville event had not put forward a social-distancing plan.
Moutsos, the leader of Utah Business Revival, said one of the group’s earlier events in Salt Lake City didn’t lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases. He thinks the government response has been heavy-handed and that negative repercussions to the economy could be worse than the effects of the coronavirus. Spurring business activity is the group’s key mission, but worries that personal liberties are being lost because of restrictions on movement also figure big.
“I believe that our rights around the country are being crushed by very confused health departments and governments,” he said. Measures prohibiting gatherings, and thus the right to assembly and free speech are “against the Constitution. ... You have a right to assemble.”