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County health departments, Herbert at odds on public gathering penalty

Governor Gary Herbert says he was blind sided by orders from the Utah and Salt Lake County Health Departments that would make public gatherings in excess of ten people punishable as a Class B Misdemeanor. (Rick Egan)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Ding, ding.

The most recent development in the state’s effort to control the coronavirus outbreak and “flatten the curve” is seemingly placing Gov. Gary Herbert at odds with a pair of county health departments.

Criminalizing a public gathering?

The disagreement stems from action taken Tuesday by the Utah Department of Health and its most recent Public Health Order.

It mandated all restaurants, bars and taverns to suspend dine-in eating and prohibit gatherings of more than 10 individuals. That decision was influenced by recommendations given at the national level by President Donald Trump.

The Utah County Health Department announced its own public health order the next day.

It stated, in part, that “gatherings of more than ten individuals are prohibited.” It should be noted the order excludes grocery stores.

Salt Lake County’s health department seemingly ratcheted things up a notch Thursday, when it released a similar order limiting public gathering, while adding that a violation “is punishable as a Class B Misdemeanor.” The intention is to keep the order in effect for 30 days.

It was just hours later that Gov. Herbert took to Twitter and called for both county’s orders to be repealed.

The Utah County Attorney’s Office says there are a few important things to note amid the speculation.

“Technically speaking, the governor doesn’t have the authority to repeal the orders. So they remain in place,” explains Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. “Now the question is, what do you do with the orders?”

Empty law

So, while the governor is free to voice his displeasure on social media it doesn’t actually change anything. But does it matter? Leavitt is predicting that both orders will be relatively toothless and more symbolic than anything.

“There’s not a way in the world, logistically speaking or even as a good health practice, that we would be prosecuting people,” he said. “Because that would just create more gatherings of people.”

Instead, the long arm of justice would only come into play in extreme scenarios.

“[If] we’re going to have 50 or 60 people and we’re just going to openly defy this than that might be something we look at prosecuting,” Leavitt said. “But only in extreme circumstance.”