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BYU students speak out against campus COVID-19 guidelines

When students arrived on-campus at BYU this fall, the school year had a different look to it. Students were required to wear masks on-campus, socially distance in classes and complete COVID-19 educational courses before classes.

These guidelines were put in place to begin the school year and when cases began to spike in Utah County, particularly Provo and Orem, the university furthered its restrictions by suspending intramural activities on campus, not allowing guests into residence halls and more.

While some students are following the guidelines, others are unhappy with the university, claiming that the mandatory use of an app, contract tracing and mandatory masks are an infringement on personal and civil liberties.

BYU senior Bella Isham is studying Mandarin with plans to graduate this year. It was a lifelong dream of hers to attend BYU, the same school where her parents met.

Prior to transferring to the university, Isham lived in China and has lived in four other countries during her life. Through her experiences abroad, Isham has gained a greater value on civil liberties.

With regards to guidelines on campus, Isham made the decision to remove herself from in-person classes and stay at home in southern Utah to complete her studies due to her beliefs.

This decision came after paying tuition for the year and making decisions to live in Provo as well.

“When I got that information I was very displeased that I had already paid tuition and I had already found a place to live and pay rent up in Provo,” Isham said.

She chose not to download the app required for BYU students and, as a result, she was then barred from entering the student portal to pay fees and access other student resources. She was allowed back into the portal after two and a half weeks of classes but missed out on opportunities to connect with classmates.

Isham also spoke to the fear students are facing on campus. Some are worried if they do not comply with guidelines they will be unable to keep on-campus internships while possibly impacting their learning opportunities.

This has led to the silencing of some in the campus community.

As for how her messages have been received, Isham responded by saying it has been mixed.

“I’ve had so many people approach me and say, ’Thank you for being willing to risk so much to protect your civil liberties and your medical freedom,’ “ Isham said. “That has been wonderful, I feel like this has been such a wonderful opportunity to find people who agree, and to be able to organize. On the flip side, I have had several people approach me and say, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s just a mask, it’s just a contract tracing app, it’s just a test.’ It is step one to a very scary end.”

Isham added that her three siblings had hopes of attending BYU, but after seeing how the university has handled the COVID-19 pandemic they are not interested in “attending a university that would disrespect their individual liberties.”

Other students have experienced similar trials this school year. Kelton Rindlisbaker, a sophomore Chinese major, talked about a medical issue that does not allow him to wear a mask and how it has impacted life on and off campus.

“Everyone living in fear along with the mask mandates makes it so that they don’t care about what I may be struggling with or what reasons I may have but rather would treat me as a social outcast,” Rindlisbaker said. “This has led to not only hostility at school and shopping, but a loss of human privileges at both places. As well, my job has decided to lay me off because I cannot wear a mask. I have lost all value in society due to what could be called a disability. People are fighting for rights and representation, but it seems to be snuffing out the lives of others.”

First-year pre-business student student Elijah Corless elected to take online classes due to the guidelines on campus as well, adding that he assumed the on-campus protocols would not apply to him.

“While I was certain that as an online student most of these guidelines weren’t going to apply to me, I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t have to submit to wearing masks on camera in class or be subjected to contact tracing/forced medical testing from afar,” Corless said. “The BYU administrators unlocked my account after our family called, but they were still displeased with the fact that I didn’t agree to their video and marked my profile on their internal records with non-compliant/disruptive.”

Transfer student Kennady Bekmezian was preparing for classes on campus, something she enjoyed over online courses, before more restrictions were put in place.

She planned on wearing a mask to respect the decision of the university, regardless of the difficulties she had wearing a mask. Her decision changed prior to the school year beginning.

“When the additional guidelines of mandatory, randomized COVID-19 testing, as well as the forced usage of the Healthy Together App were announced shortly before classes began, I regretfully changed my entire class schedule to online,” Bekmezian said. “I felt blindsided by the university as, private or not, I don’t feel that it’s right for such infringing guidelines to be implemented after many students already made semester plans and even paid tuition. At this point I no longer felt that I had a choice in the matter as opposed to when I initially signed up for classes knowing masks would be required to attend.”

Bekmezian added that while she has these beliefs, the safety of others has never left her mind. She wants to question others who think she may be endangering lives to think about where a line in the sand may be drawn.

That has been a big concern for local and state officials. They have been urging students to think not only about their own safety but also the safety of those in the greater community off campus.

For Isham, she said that she has acknowledged that COVID-19 is an illness and people need to be careful, but those decisions on how to be careful should be left to individuals.

“If somebody has susceptibility to a virus that is spreading, the school should offer them online classes,” Isham said. “That’s why they offer online classes, for people who don’t want to put themselves in a situation that might be dangerous to them. I feel like our entire society, for a very long time, has had this mentality that if you are vulnerable to something then you don’t put yourself in that situation.”

One thing students spoke about was the inability to have civil discourse regarding varying opinions on the COVID-19 pandemic and guidelines.

Bekmezian, founder of the Facebook group BYU Students for Personal Freedoms, has been engaging in what she called thoughtful conversations with others who have varying opinions.

While these conversations have been enlightening for both sides, according to Bekmezian, she also has seen some negative comments on BYU’s instagram page as a result of her wanting to talk about her beliefs.

“It is vital to any civilized society, and it is the true American culture,” Isham said. “Open, honest, civil discourse is who we are as Americans and we are forgetting it. We are forgetting who we are.”

BYU is currently reporting 269 active cases of COVID-19 in the campus community, which is a considerable drop from the case counts in other weeks. The university’s rolling weekly average has been as high as 68 in previous weeks while it is currently 41.

When asked about the lowering case counts on Thursday, BYU President Kevin J Worthen said that he is hoping for that trend to continue on campus and in the community.

In varying degrees, LDS conference cuts swath through Utah's religious community

Saturday is the first full day of Sukkot, the Jewish celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacles remembering when the children of Israel began their wandering for 40 years in the desert.

For one week, the Sukkot traditionally has Jewish families pitching a tent/booth with doors open to the tabernacle as a symbol of looking to God and remembering his protection in the wilderness.

On Saturday, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will figuratively gather in their tents/homes and turn their eyes and hearts to God and their leader, President Russell M. Nelson, during the 190th Semiannual General Conference of the church.

Likewise, on Saturday members of the St. Francis Catholic Church in Orem and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Provo, will turn their hearts to the healing power of St. Francis of Assissi when the annual blessing of the animals takes place. It is a sign of God’s love for all of his creatures.

As Saturday is the Sabbath for the Seventh-day Adventists, members of the Provo congregation will be gathering to worship and give their devotion to God in their meetinghouse about the same time as all the other observances.

Religiously, it is a busy weekend. While COVID-19 may have slowed the pace or distances of the congregations, the worshipping has not stopped.

For those living along the Wasatch Front, no matter what denomination, they know that it’s time for the LDS Church’s General Conference.

Does that matter to the other denominations? Not much, according to Pastor Joe McCormick of the Mt. Calvary Chapel in American Fork.

“There is less traffic with COVID-19,” McCormick said. “One thing for certain this weekend is the best time to have a restaurant lunch on Sunday.”

McCormick said they’re not likely to see their LDS friends that weekend as they huddle up their families to view conference.

“We hear what happens but for the most part it doesn’t affect us,” McCormick said.

Alexander Jensen, a former member of the LDS Church and now a parishioner at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, says he understands why people want to be there at conference.

Jensen remembers as a young man getting tickets to conference and going with his father from Orem to Salt Lake City. It took two hours to get up there and find a parking spot before they ever got to the conference session.

Now he says the greatest impact of conference on him comes from the media.

“I notice how much it takes over the media leading up to it,” Jensen said. “The front page stories and big headlines and the evening news. I find it interesting.”

Jensen added, “Everybody expects you to know it, what happens, that it’s conference even if you’re not LDS.”

Jensen acknowledged this is an important weekend for the LDS Church and that the year seems to be structured around the spring and fall conferences in the area, but since leaving the church, he is not as focused on it.

Emily Lower, a member of the Springville Community Presbyterian Church, has lived in Utah off and on for a total of 16 years.

“You’d think general conference would be on my radar,” Lower said. “I seldom remember it’s conference weekend.”

Lower said she’ll be interested in what the leaders say.

“I have a lot of respect for the church,” Lower said. “Our lives are intertwined.”

Lower had a best friend in high school that was LDS. She was invited to hear former President Thomas S. Monson talk at a women’s conference session. She said his talk was impressive, but that’s about it.

Chaplain Linda Walton, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said conference is hard on Salt Lake City.

“Traffic, parking, people tend to look at it like a Jazz game,” Walton said. “It’s a good time for the ‘gentiles’ to stay away from that part of town.”

Walton compares it to going to a Catholic Christmas Eve service. “It’s different but if we were invited, we’d go.”

Walton said some new people to the area may watch out of curiosity. Some will be incensed. She’s had students watch it for a comparative religions class, then do a paper.

“We’ll see it in the paper or on the news and we’ll get all the information we need from the small talk after conference,” she said.

There are 4,200 religions that are known about throughout the world. About 1% of their beliefs are similar to each other. Hearing about conference fits in with that 1%, Walton said.

AP featured
GOP senator with virus says he'll make Supreme Court vote

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee revealed Friday he was infected with the coronavirus in an announcement that came just hours after President Donald Trump said he had the disease,

The conservative senator plans to isolate for 10 days then return to public life the day the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin considering the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

“I will be back to work in time to join my colleagues in advancing” her nomination, Lee wrote.

Lee said he took the test Thursday after getting medical advice about symptoms similar to longtime allergies, according to a statement posted on Twitter.

He visited the White House on Saturday as Trump announced Barrett’s nomination, and met with her two days before he started feeling symptoms.

Studies have shown that people may be contagious for about two days prior to developing COVID-19 symptoms and may be most contagious during that time.

Trump disclosed that he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive overnight; Lee tweeted his own diagnosis mid-morning Friday. The isolation period comes on the recommendation of the Senate attending physician, Lee said in his statement.

The cases at the highest levels of government have Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer calling for a robust contact tracing effort, including identifying, testing and isolating people who came in close contact with those infected.

It’s unclear when and how the Utah Republican caught the virus, but Lee said he had tested negative ahead of the Saturday visit to the White House. The visit featured little social distancing and few masks. Lee was shown carrying, but not wearing, a mask as he shook hands and hugged multiple people at that event.

Lee also met with Barrett in the Capitol on Tuesday. The two were not wearing masks when they posed for a photo without adhering to social distancing guidelines. Most of their meeting took place in chairs distanced further apart, however.

Lee previously self-quarantined for two weeks in late March and April, after his colleague Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky tested positive for the coronavirus. Lee rode back to Utah then with fellow Utah Sen. Mitt Romney on a plane chartered by the former presidential candidate. Neither senator caught the virus at that time.

Lee will remain in Washington during this isolation period, his spokesman Conn Carroll said. Romney tweeted that he hopes Lee makes a speedy recovery. He also encouraged people to wear masks and referenced a current spike of cases in Utah, where counts are hitting the state’s highest levels since the pandemic began.

The state’s Republican governor has stopped short of mandating masks, instead leaving it up to counties to decide.

The diagnosis makes Lee the second person in the Utah Congressional delegation to come down with the disease. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams became the second person in Congress diagnosed with coronavirus this spring, and recovered after a hospitalization.

Suspects in Provo protest gun incidents post bail

The Ogden man arrested in July for allegedly brandishing a handgun during a Provo protest on police brutality made his first appearance before a Fourth District judge in Provo on Friday.

In the days following a June 29 protest, authorities arrested two men for allegedly brandishing or firing handguns while blocking traffic. According to the probable cause statement filed in support of one of the arrests, 29-year-old Bradley Glenn Walters of Ogden attended the protests while armed with a revolver handgun.

He was arrested under the suspicion of second-degree felony aggravated assault and third-degree felony rioting on July 2. Charges were filed four days later, on July 6. On July 17, an order to hold without bail was filed.

Walters had his first appearance in court Friday before Fourth District Judge James Brady. During the proceedings, Walters’ bail was set to $10,000, and he was promptly released after making bail.

The arrest stems from the June protests where officers with the Provo City Police Department received reports of shots fired in the area of Center Street and University Avenue.

As demonstrators protested in the intersection, which blocked traffic, a white SUV attempted to turn right onto Center Street. The white SUV made its way through the line of protesters and a confrontation ensued. During the encounter, a man reportedly brandished a firearm and fired rounds into the vehicle. That man was later identified as 33-year-old Jesse Keller Taggart of Salt Lake City.

However, when Taggart allegedly fired rounds into the vehicle, striking the driver of the white SUV, witnesses recorded Walters allegedly pulling out a revolver handgun in the middle of the intersection and pointing it at the driver of the vehicle, according to court documents.

The driver continued down the street, and Taggart allegedly chased after the SUV while firing a second round through the rear window. Walters also allegedly pursued the vehicle while continuing to point the revolver at the driver until the SUV was out of range.

The driver was admitted to the emergency room at Utah Valley Hospital with injuries consistent to a gunshot wound to the arm and shrapnel in his eye and stomach.

Later that night, Walters allegedly spoke with police, and authorities were able to identify the firearm as being in his possession.

Taggart was arrested under the suspicion of first-degree felony attempted aggravated murder, second-degree felony aggravated assault resulting in serious injury, third-degree felony rioting, class A misdemeanor threat or use of a dangerous weapon in a fight, class B misdemeanor criminal mischief and class B misdemeanor discharge of a firearm upon a highway.

The Utah County Attorney’s Office filed charges for first-degree felony attempted aggravated murder, second-degree felony aggravated assault resulting in serious injury, third-degree felony rioting and second-degree felony discharge of a firearm on July 6.

During a continued bail hearing on Aug. 4, Taggart’s bail was increased to $100,000. He was then ordered to report to the Utah County Jail on Aug.7 to post bail or turn himself in. He also was ordered not to have any contact with the alleged victim, to participate in any Utah County demonstrations, or to travel to Utah County other than to report to the jail.

On Aug. 7, Taggart was able to post bond and was released from custody. His initial appearance is currently scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m.