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Governor’s office apologizes after Utah resident receives a mask with a gun on it

The mask with a gun, an American flag, and the phrase "Don't Tread on Me" sent to a Utah resident from the Governor's Office as part of the 'Mask for Every Utahn" program. Photo credit: Christen Passey

SALT LAKE CITY — State officials say they’ve apologized personally to a Utah woman who said her free mask from the state included an image of a gun and other political statements printed on the front. 

After waiting two months, Christine Passey-Spencer discovered her free mask from the state’s “Mask for Every Utahn” initiative displayed an American flag, a gun, and the Tea Party phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The phrase, typically seen printed or sewn on a yellow flag below an image of a coiled snake, originates from one of several flags used by Revolutionary-era Americans. The flag, also known as the Gadsden flag, regained popularity in the last ten years as a symbol for members of the Tea Party, a movement within the Republican party. It also has connections to the military. However, because it has surfaced in connection with high profile crimes including the ambush-style murder of two Las Vegas police officers, some people see the phrase and the flag it came from as a form of hate speech.  The modern meaning of  “don’t tread on me,” has been linked to white supremacy. Law enforcement has also adopted the phrase in recent years. 

Passey posted to Twitter, questioning the intentions of the mask, calling it a “politically charged militia mask.”

 

Passey also accused Utah of using taxpayer dollars to fund what she described as a controversial mask. 

“I was just shocked”  

Passey’s family registered for free masks back in April under a program announced by the governor. As time passed, Passey forgot they signed up to receive them. 

In an interview with KSL NewsRadio, Passey said she did not expect to be sent masks with such controversial imagery. 

“I was just shocked. I was really frustrated. This is mine and our tax dollars that are sending me this incredibly charged political messaging that is shocking to receive from the state,” stated Passey. “My first thought was ‘does the state know they’re sending me these? Was this approved by them?'”

After thinking about the state’s intention for a while, she came to the conclusion it was probably just a mistake. However, she still had some concerns about the masks. 

Other concerns about the mask and gun image

First, she doesn’t believe this is an isolated incident and is curious about what others who received similar masks think. Additionally, when Passey posted the image of the masks on Twitter, people responded with complaints about the masks they’ve received. 

“Some are saying the masks they received are dirty or broke the first time they washed them,” Passey said. She mentioned someone receiving a mask that smelled like a swimming pool and masks that were just too small. 

Within two hours of the Twitter post circulating, Passey said the governor’s office contacted her to deliver new masks but asked for the previous masks back. She said she refused. 

“I appreciate their quick action,” said Passey. “I get that it’s a mistake and I think there needs to be accountability for the mistake.” 

Passey said more needs to be done aside from saying it’s just a mistake because of a perceived underlying message.

“I would like them to denounce the messaging,” said Passey. “Because my first reaction was ‘the state of Utah agrees with this messaging. ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ right now is against quarantine and wearing face masks. It’s kind of a symbol for that movement.”  

She also mentioned due to the current climate around policing and protests, the phrase and gun imagery felt targeted. 

Passey posed a question: “What if these [masks] were pro-choice or said ‘Black Lives Matter,’ what would their [the governor’s office] reaction be then?”

A Mask for Every Utahn

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development is behind the “Mask for Every Utahn” that started two months ago. 

Deputy Director of GOED, Ben Hart, spoke with KSL NewsRadio about the mask on Tuesday.  

Since the start of the program, Hart said Utah worked with 25 manufacturers to make 1.8 million masks that have been sent out to 250,000 households across the state. 

Out of all the masks, Hart admits there were a few that didn’t meet their standards.

A few masks, less than 150, “are what we deem as very very inappropriate with symbols and prints on them,” said Hart. 

Apologizing on behalf of the state

They believed to have pulled all the inappropriate masks.

“We don’t feel like they [the masks] represented the state in the right image,” Hart said. 

However, a couple of the masks did slip through the vetting process, including the two sent to Passey’s house. 

The mask was brought to the department’s attention after Passey’s tweet began surfing. 

“We have actually hand-delivered a new mask to the person [who] sent those tweets out,” said Hart. “We want to assure the citizens of the state that no taxpayer dollars will be used to pay for these masks. We will work with the manufacture and ensure no taxpayer dollars were used for these masks.” 

“At the end of the day, we recognize those were not good masks. Those were not masks that represent the state of Utah,” said Hart.  

Hart said the department takes “full responsibility for this and hope it never happens again,” and added he hopes they’ve “made it right” with the resident.