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Salt Lake City Airport Tightens Rules For Greeting Missionaries Returning From Abroad

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pauses to speak to media on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Romney is among the officials who criticized the flouting of airport guidelines for greeting returning missionaries.
Carolyn Kaster

Salt Lake City officials have announced tougher restrictions on families and friends meeting Mormon missionaries returning from abroad after many well wishers flouted official guidelines, thronging an airport parking lot over the weekend with welcome-home signs and balloons.

Hundreds of people gathered for tearful reunions for some 1,600 missionaries flying back in chartered planes from the Philippines, which ordered foreigners to leave amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Southeast Asian country has recorded some 500 cases of infection and more than 30 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Earlier, airport officials had issued instructions that only two people should greet each missionary, and that they should remain in their cars — measures aimed at maintaining the "social distancing" that health officials have deemed necessary to limit the spread of the pathogen.

But photos and video of the scene at the airport on Sunday showed that many people defied the guidelines.

The Salt Lake City Tribune described the scene: "Missionaries, who had been ordered by the church to isolate themselves from their families for 14 days upon return, were swept into hugs. Some pulled off their masks to greet their well-wishers as children and seniors alike mingled in the scrum."

City and state officials and even Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who represents Utah and is himself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, expressed criticism.

Romney, who only the day before went into self-isolation due to contact with fellow Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has tested positive for the virus, called the gathering "irresponsible."

"We need to work together to keep our communities safe," he said in a Facebook post.

Romney's words echoed those of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

"We know how important it is to reunite with a family member during this time but we have to adhere to mass gathering standards, which are in place to protect us," Mendenhall said. "Lives are on the line and every precaution must be taken to help stop the quick spread of this dangerous illness."

Utah officials said Monday that officials had confirmed 257 coronavirus cases in the state as of Monday, with one COVID-19 death.

"What occurred Sunday afternoon at the Salt Lake airport causes us deep concern with missionaries and their families disregarding important instructions regarding self-isolation and congregating at airports," a letter from the airport said.

Under new rules, airport officials now say only one car per returning missionary will be allowed, with designated parking spots and airport security present to ensure compliance, according to The Salt Lake City Tribune.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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