Gov. Herbert repeals criminal penalties for large gatherings during pandemic

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City, Sept. 12, 2018 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s governor repealed local orders that created criminal penalties for people who gather in large groups as health officials warn the new coronavirus could take months to deal with.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday the orders in Salt Lake and Utah counties, two of the state’s most populated, had not been approved by the state, which has recommended against large gatherings but not imposed a criminal penalty.

“Our intent was to have this more of a voluntary compliance,” Herbert said, adding that the state would have to reassess if businesses flout the rules. He said he expects people will use common sense and live within the spirit of the law to avoid forcing officials to create a “police state.”

The local orders would have made large gathering a misdemeanor. Authorities haven’t been filing criminal charges but want to make sure people understand the seriousness of the pandemic, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said, according to the Daily Herald. The original order excluded gatherings at grocery stores.

In Salt Lake County, officials also said the order was aimed at making sure people weren’t congregating in close quarters and risking the spread of the virus.

The flap comes as health officials warn the state is at the beginning of an epidemic.

“Outbreaks like this can be expected to last several months,” state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said.

The virus has already forced dine-in closures at restaurants and bars statewide and prompted a nearly 30% spike in unemployment claims last week, part of a national surge, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Utah’s total number of cases jumped to 112 Friday, up from 78 the day before, Dunn said. It was the largest single-day jump so far as the state sees more community spread. No deaths have been reported.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. But for the elderly and people with existing conditions, it can cause more severe illness. The vast majority of those who are infected recover.

COVID-19 information resources

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