SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney and Utah state leaders on Monday criticized as irresponsible a weekend gathering of hundreds at a Salt Lake City airport parking garage to welcome home 900 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries returning from the Philippines.
The people who showed up Sunday evening, some hugging arriving loved ones, should have heeded warnings to keep their distance to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, said Romney, Utah’s governor and lieutenant governor and the church itself.
Airport officials had asked for only one or two family members of each returning missionary to come and said the guidance for people to stay in their cars wasn’t followed by many people, said airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.
Video and photos of the event showed many inside the parking garage standing shoulder to shoulder instead of at the recommended “social distancing” measure of 6 feet (1 meter) apart. The faith had told its members that only parents of the mostly young adult missionaries should show up at the airport.
“This is irresponsible,” Sen. Mitt Romney wrote on Facebook. “Parents, please pick up your missionary from the airprt alone and help them strictly follow self-quarantine procedures for their first 14 days at home. We need to work together to keep our communities safe.”
For most people, coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
The missionaries who arrived at the airport were returning early on chartered flights from missions that last up to two years. Thousands more missionaries are expected to return from abroad in the coming days and weeks after the Utah-based faith said Friday it was bringing home an unspecified but “substantial” number of missionaries.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called the event “dangerous” in a tweet and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said he was “Really disappointed in the behavior we saw from missionary families at the SLC airport tonight.”
“I get it, I’ve been there (and still have a child serving), but this is unacceptable. In a time of shared sacrifice, we must do better to save lives,” said Cox, who is a member of the faith widely known as the Mormon church, as are Romney and Hebert.
The church posted a statement online Sunday night urging parents to go alone to pick up their family members and to maintain recommended distance apart from them and for the missionaries go into 14 days of self isolation.
Regional church leaders had been told on Saturday to tell parents to take only one vehicle to the airport and stay in their cars until their sons or daughters, said church spokesman Daniel Woodruff. There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus among the missionaries who were serving, Woodruff said, declining to comment on the criticism from Romney and the other political leaders.
It is tradition in Utah for large groups of family and friends to squeeze into the arrivals greeting area at Salt Lake City airport’s to welcome home missionaries from with signs, screams and balloons — and the event illustrated how religions are being forced to alter customs amid the spread of the coronavirus.
The proselytizing missions are an integral part of the religion and considered rites of passages for young members of the faith. Men serve two years while women serve 18 months. There were about 65,000 people serving missions before the coronavirus pandemic started.
The church has said it does not plan to suspend its missionary program, but hasn’t said when future missionaries will leave or where they will go.