SALT LAKE CITY — In March 2020, the world seemingly shut down as state leaders rushed to keep Utahns safe from the quick-spreading and largely mysterious novel coronavirus. As part of the response, church services were limited and family members were unable to visit loved ones at health care facilities.
Nearly a year later, a state lawmaker is trying to prevent that from ever happening again with a proposed bill that he says will protect religious and personal freedoms, even in states of emergency.
Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, is the sponsor for HB184, which would block health departments from limiting religious exercise or the entry of a church. It also prohibits a health care facility from barring individuals from seeing at least one family member or spiritual advisor at a time.
“This is not to say anything negative about our health care facilities or our health care workers; I know that everyone … has worked very, very diligently to do the right things, but we just feel strongly (about) that right to be able to have those emotional connections,” Maloy said.
Taking the proper health precautions would still be permitted under the current language of the bill and facilities would be allowed “to do everything to make sure everybody’s kept safe,” Maloy said, but they will not be permitted to ban visitors altogether.
“It’s not to say we can’t do recommendations or put the right things in place to keep people safe, but just doing it without shutting those places down,” he said.
In a written statement, the Utah Department of Health said it was reviewing the bill and would address any potential concerns with Maloy.
“The Utah Department of Health has an important responsibility to respond to outbreaks of infectious disease in order to protect the health of Utah residents,” Tom Hudachko, Utah Department of Health director of communications wrote in the statement.
While the bill was inspired by the state’s COVID-19 response, Maloy said he didn’t feel any health or other public officials acted maliciously and recognized the situation was fast-moving and difficult to address; however, he said he believes it’s important to reflect on the response and see if there were areas where the state could be better in the future.
“I think it’s good for us to look at what we’ve learned through this past year,” he said.
While Utah hasn’t limited worship since the spring, other states have faced backlash for strict health guidelines applied to worship. The United States Supreme Court recently sided with religious groups in a dispute over COVID-19 restrictions in New York, ruling that the guidelines implemented for churches were far more restrictive than regulations enacted for similar secular businesses. Prior to the ruling, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo revised restrictions in response to a lawsuit from religious organizations.
Utah initially restricted in-person church services but later allowed them under new guidelines issued in May. Since then, the state has largely avoided enacting orders on the religious sector of Utah.
In November, former Gov. Gary Herbert issued a new emergency order to address hospital overcrowding that banned residents from socially gathering with those who live outside of their household. Religious organizations were exempt from the order and instead were encouraged to implement the proper health protocols in their congregations to limit the spread.
Thankfully, Maloy said, Utah included its religious organizations in making key decisions about the COVID-19 response and there haven’t been any instances similar to the issues seen in New York and other states; however, he felt ensuring religious liberties even in the face of emergencies was crucial, which is why he proposed the bill as a preventative measure.
“This is a preventative measure to make sure that that never happens here in Utah,” Maloy said.
Religious groups in the state have largely followed health guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19, outside of government orders. But Maloy said the “difference is they weren’t forced to by the government” and that they acted because “it was the right thing to do with their congregations.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been proactive in its response. The global church suspended in-person church service and did not immediately return to services even after local guidelines allowed for it.
Several other religious groups have implemented their own COVID-19 guidelines outside of state requirements, as well. Salt Lake’s Calvary Baptist Church, for example, closed in-person services after opening services briefly.
“I just wanted to err on the side of caution,” the Rev. Oscar Moses previously told KSL.com about his decision. “I didn’t want to take any chances with someone perhaps even contracting the virus.”
The Chabad Lubavitch of Utah also adjusted its services by implementing a hybrid system with some services conducted in person and others online to maintain public health guidelines. The congregation also hosted socially distanced Hanukkah celebrations in December.
“Whilst we are taking precautions, we are trying to be there for people in a way that makes them feel most comfortable,” Rabbi Avremi Zippel told KSL.com.
Zippel said he’s been grateful for the partnership the state has cultivated with the various religious communities in addressing pandemic response.
“That is something which we’re very grateful for here in Utah,” he said. “I know that we do not take it for granted because I know that many of my colleagues who live in other parts of the country, in larger communities, had their local governments really kind of bring the hammer down on various religious communities in what seems to be in completely arbitrary fashion.”
The state’s response to COVID-19 has largely been based around personal responsibility, with a mandatory mask mandate not implemented until several months into the pandemic.
For Zippel, he said he feels that religious leaders need to strike a balance between leading by example in times of crisis while still offering crucial religious and spiritual support.
“We need to be leading from the front; we need to be shutting down when we need to shut down,” he explained, noting that Judaism and several other religions place extreme priority on a person’s health.
On the other hand, he noted that it’s important for religious leaders to feel support from their local government for the service they provide the community.
“I think that as religious leaders, we like to feel supported and acknowledged and recognized by our local governments for the essential services that we provide to our communities,” he said. “Some people rely on their faith communities for support, for structure, for so many good things in their life, especially when everything is collapsing all around them.”
In the end, while Maloy said Utah did a great job balancing religious freedoms while still protecting the public’s health, he felt it was important to solidify those rights through law.
Protecting seniors in living facilities
Maloy’s bill would also prohibit senior living facilities from limiting family members or religious leaders from visiting residents, something that was common practice early on in the pandemic in an effort to keep residents safe from the virus.
“The reason is, oftentimes, they’re very fragile because of their age. And locking them in where they can’t have the emotional support system from their spiritual leaders or their family is just something we don’t want to see,” Maloy said. “It’s meant to be preventative to protect those rights, and we have seen instances in Utah where seniors — especially seniors — were away from their family members or spiritual leaders for months at a time, and we just feel like that’s just too much of an infringement.”
Jenny Allred, who went several months without seeing her 95-year-old grandmother, said the bill is extremely important and is something that “absolutely needs to happen.”
“The health department was focusing so much on the aspect of keeping physically safe — which absolutely needs to happen — however, there’s another very important component to that health that goes hand in hand, and that’s mental and emotional health,” she said. “So I think this will help kind of find a balance between that.”
As the facility Allred’s grandmother resides in reacted to COVID-19 cases in the community, the family’s contact with the 95-year-old declined and the family was “very worrisome because we couldn’t get ahold of her.”
Eventually, the family was able to get her an Alexa machine that helped them communicate, but they were still unable, at times, to contact her. In-person visits were also limited, allowed to happen only through a glass window. Her grandmother contracted COVID-19 at one point and Allred and other family members struggled to get in contact with her for health updates since the facility was overwhelmed and short-staffed. Fortunately, her grandmother has since recovered.
“I think when you’re going through those things, to even be able to see her in person and be able to have that connection, let her know things are going to be OK, be able to provide that love, and for her to be able to feel that and see that in person, I think speaks volumes,” Allred said.
Maloy agreed and said that was his entire idea behind the bill: preventing seniors from becoming isolated during a disaster.
“They can still be able to take precautions to do everything to make sure everybody’s kept safe, (but) they will not be able to just say, ‘No, you can’t have visitors coming in,'” Maloy said.