ST. GEORGE — Over 200 people gathered outside the Washington County Administrative Building in St. George Wednesday evening to protest coronavirus prompted restrictions set up throughout the state they claim are impeding their constitutionally-protected rights and doing more harm than good.
The crowd gathered as a part of the “Walk for Freedom in St. George,” an event organized by Larry Meyers, a well-known name among local and state Republican and conservative circles.
“We are supporting our constitutional rights and asking the government to respect those, and we want to get back to work,” Meyers said as passing motorists blasted their horns and shouted support for the crowd on the street corner.
A few minutes prior, the group had walked around the block a couple of times, going up Tabernacle Street from 200 East, turning right up 100 East, right again on St. George Boulevard, and then down 200 East to the street corner once more
Many people carried signs of protests against the closing of businesses and claimed the government’s response to COVID-19 pandemic has been an assault on civil liberties. One sign read “All jobs are essential,” while another stated, “Freedom is contagious. Freedom is infectious. Perspective goes viral.”
Other signs read “My income is essential. #BackToWork,” “Faith over fear,” and “If it pleases the king, may I go to work?”
“We want to get our businesses open and people back to work,” Meyers said.
Local industries hit hard by the coronavirus-induced closures, travel bans and stay at home directives have mostly been those attached to tourism and hospitality. While there are restaurants that can provide takeout, curbside service or drive-through service, they remain unable to offer dine-in services. Local hotels that would otherwise be playing host to hundreds of travelers currently have severely low occupancy levels.
Though many people remain employed despite the economic blows the response to COVID-19 has produced, others have lost their jobs because of it.
Washington County was recently ranked among the top five counties in Utah with the highest unemployment claims filed in the wake of the pandemic’s economic impacts.
To deal with the economic impact of the pandemic nationally, Congress passed a $2.1 trillion relief package that’s sending $1,200 stimulus checks to Americans who qualify for the aid.
“I think a better solution is letting everyone go back to work,” Ethan Deceuster said.
Deceuster carried a sign demanding schools reopen. A former elementary school teacher, now teaching at Dixie State University – albeit online due to the pandemic – Deceuster said his own children need to be in school, and praised the hard work of his fellow teachers.
Also attending the protest was Washington County Republican Chair Jimi Kestin, who said he was not surprised to see so many people there. Rather, he found it impressive. Many people want to get back to work, he said.
“We have a lot of people struggling in this county financially, far more than are struggling from the health crisis situation,” Kestin said, speaking through a mask.
There were individuals among the crowd that wore masks and practiced social distancing by remaining six feet apart, while others clustered in small groups and stood right next to each other.
Meyers said protest attendees were encouraged to observe the state directive against standing too close to others and not being in gatherings of over 10 people. When asked about some clusters of people not observing those directives, Meyers said, “The thing is, you can’t control freedom.”
A headcount of the group put the gathering at over 230 people, with some attendees estimating there were as many as 400.
While Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a strongly advised stay at home directive, and not a strict order as a majority of other states have, Meyers said that response has still caused people to feel their freedoms are being attacked.
“We’d just like to get back to normal,” he said.
Others who want a return to normalcy and for restaurants to reopen is Dave Cash, a singer-songwriter who has performed in local venues and misses the direct, personal interaction with his audience.
“Right now we’re having to do videos from our homes to try and reach our audiences,” Cash said of himself and other musicians he knows. “It’s a good thing to do that, but we miss being able to get with our fans and being able to communicate with them on a personal level.”
Cash also said he felt Washington County should be able to reopen businesses based on the fact it wasn’t as impacted by the virus as counties in northern Utah were. It should be a regional process, he added.
As of Wednesday, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported that Washington County had 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with an overall count of 61 confirmed cases for the southwest Utah area. Of those cases, there has been one death, two hospitalizations, and 40 confirmed recoveries.
“We just want the governor and our other leaders to see that we’re ready to open Utah back up,” Meyers said.
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