MANTI—A “freedom rally” brought a large crowd of local residents and attendees from out of town to Manti City Park last week to protest government mask mandates.
The crowd of nearly 250, not a single one wearing a mask, stood and sat in lawn chairs facing the park stage; they were surrounded by trees and vending booths. Up on stage, speakers declared that mask mandates were unconstitutional and renounced officials for causing churches to close and creating economic burdens.
Audience members enjoyed breezy weather and entertainment between speeches, including karaoke performances and parodies. Some sat close to the stage and cheered often, while others observed casually from afar.
Jacob Isbell and Spencer Dierenfeldt of Davis County, both of whom had assault rifles slung over their backs throughout the evening, performed the national anthem.
Isbell is the same person who played a key role in organizing the “Trash the Mask” event at the Utah State Capitol on Sept. 5. that brought out 1,500 people, as well as events in Orem and Provo that attracted over 1,000 each.
He played electric guitar and served as master of ceremonies for the Manti rally. Between speakers, Isbell kept up the energy of the crowd, put on a dance competition and gave away gift certificates.
The freedom rally was “a gathering against the lockdown measures that have made it so that people are not allowed to show their faces,” Isbell said.
He said masks can be a tool the government can use to control people. He said that if the government can force people to wear masks, it can coerce them to submit to more consequential directives.
“If the cowards [who] are willing to live as docile tax-cattle in other countries want to live that way, that’s their prerogatives,” Isbell said. “This is a gathering of people who put their faith in God, not their faith in the government.”
Keynote speaker Eric Moutsos, a former Salt Lake City police officer who was put on administrative leave and later resigned after refusing to patrol the annual LGBT pride parade in Salt Lake, said the actions American officials had taken showed they did not “understand the role of government.”
“We were created to be together maskless,” he said.
Another speaker, YouTube personality Tyce Chamberlain warned against “FEAR,” which stands for “false evidence appearing real.” He also said “NEWS” stands for “nothing ever worth sharing.” He brought the acronyms up in reference to information issued by government authorities and disseminated by the media reporting the new coronavirus is continuing to spread.
Most speakers came from out of town. But one speaker, Caleb Mitsvotai, was from Manti. He talked about freedom making life enjoyable. He said humans have been given the discretion to choices that could hurt them, such as when Adam ate the forbidden fruit in the biblical story.
Comments from the podium gave the impression that people are being forced to wear masks. That isn’t universally true. In Sanpete County, everyone in schools must wear masks, and many businesses require or encourage them. But there are no ordinances, nor any fines or other sanctions for failing to wear a mask in public.
As of now, Summit, Salt Lake and Utah counties have mask orders issued by mayors or the local health department. Speakers warned that precedents set in these counties could lead to police issuing fines or arresting people for not wearing masks or social distancing in the rest of the state.
However, even in counties that have emergency mask orders, masks are not compulsory. The Utah County public health order that instructs people to cover their faces in public says it will not be “enforced with criminal punishment.” A Utah County sheriff’s sergeant said officers are responding to infractions with education not punishment.
In Salt Lake County, according to the Deseret News, no individuals had received citations, and just two orders have been issued to specific businesses as of last week.
In yellow-phase regions, including Manti and the rest of Sanpete County, officials advise people to wear masks in public and keep groups to fewer than 20. Last week’s anti-mask rally in Manti defied both of the guidelines.
One couple who remained well behind the crowd at the Manti rally were Wes and Ellen Arnoldson, who saw the event from their house across the street and walked over to see what was happening. They said they supported the theme of freedom, but not using freedom as a justification to “complain” about having to wear masks.
“I’m not in agreement with all of this,” Wes Arnoldson said. “If one person in there has COVID, how many others are gonna get COVID?”
“The numbers are rising in our state, and it makes me nervous when you go places,” Ellen Arnoldson said. She also said Isbell’s assault rifle made him appear to “want to be combative.”
On the day of the freedom rally, Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, announced cases were spiking in 12 of Utah’s 13 health districts, including the six counties served by the Central Utah Public Health Department (CUPHD).
From Aug. 20 to Sept. 21 cases in Sanpete County rose from 140 to 205, a 45 percent increase in a relatively short time, according to usafacts.org, a service that pulls government data from 70 sources.
Despite the recent surge, some attendees who spoke to the Messenger believed the event posed no danger. “Fresh air and sunshine kills viruses; there’s no chance of getting it outside,” said Tami Privett of Manti, who helped to organize the event.
Privett said she supported the cause because she felt it was wrong to make children wear masks in schools. She claimed masks caused staph and sinus infections and that “kids can’t spread the virus.” She said it was time to focus on the economy, something she accused major media companies of trying to destroy.
A visitor at the rally from Provo argued people should not have to change their lifestyles to protect people who have underlying conditions and are more likely than healthy people to die from the virus.
“There’s a bigger agenda behind this,” the visitor said, echoing statements the government is asserting too much power. She carried an umbrella decorated with American flags and a sign that accused “mainstream media” of “censoring the truth the way the Nazis did.”
On his Facebook page, Isbell shared that the Facebook organization had censored some of his posts, including a public comment on Aug. 22 that read, “Utahns are ready to kill the traitors in power.”
Ray Keller of Spring City said he disagreed with some claims made about the Constitution but agreed that the government had overreached. He said if he lived a more urban lifestyle, rather than working from home and homeschooling his children, he would have more concerns over the pandemic.
“I believe everyone has a right to life, and if someone else feels threatened by me being there without a mask, I would take that seriously,” he said.
Cousins Adam and Aidan Compton of Moroni also said they did not wear masks in their daily lives, which seldom involved interacting with large groups. .
“I don’t like the way they feel, I don’t like the way they constrict your breathing, but mostly I don’t like being made to do things,” Adam Compton said.
Aidan Compton said he would feel more compelled to cover his face in public if he believed the virus threat to be more severe. “If I felt like I was affecting other people’s health, I would probably be more likely to wear one,” he said.
Many statements made from the stage or by participants interviewed during the rally were not consistent with what scientific authorities have said repeatedly about the virus.
A Sept. 18 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contradicts the claim that children cannot infect others. It found that at least 12 children under the age of 10 acquired COVID-19 in Salt Lake City child facilities and spread it to other children and family members.
Nathan Selin, executive director of the CUPHD, said he had heard of no evidence that masks cause health problems. He said while coronavirus is much less likely to spread outdoors than indoors, it does happen.
Selin said people in Sanpete County and statewide should exercise caution for others’ sake if not their own.
“Inevitably, we all come into contact with individuals that are high-risk,” many of whom could live many more years without catching coronavirus, Selin said. “It’s our responsibility to protect those who are at high risk of dying.”
Although many at the Manti rally believed people could stop the virus from spreading by simply staying home when they felt sick, Selin said an estimated 20 percent of people who contract the virus never show symptoms. Yet they remain contagious for up to 14 days and during that time can and often do infect others.
Aside from patients who had died, Selin said some central Utahns had suffered long-term illness and loss of taste or smell. He said after less than a year of research, it is still unclear who is at risk of long-term respiratory complications from COVID-19.
On Friday at 6 p.m., there will be another freedom rally at the Utah County Courthouse in Provo with Isbell and Moutsos as the key organizers and speakers.