Gubernatorial candidates spar over pandemic in online forum

Gubernatorial candidates Chris Peterson (left) and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (right) traded views on topical issues during an online forum on Wednesday.

SALT LAKE CITY – Despite a recent spike in statewide COVID-19 cases, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox offered no apologies for Utah’s coronavirus response Wednesday during what was practically his first public appearance since his victory in the GOP primary on June 30.

During an online forum jointly sponsored by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Cox expressed support for Gov. Gary Herbert’s continuing policy of refusing to impose restrictive coronavirus precautions on a statewide basis.

“I’m still the lieutenant governor,” Cox said with a grin, “and I have no choice but to agree with the actions of the governor. But there is wisdom in the governor’s approach … Circumstances are different in different parts of the state and we can work closely with local officials to make the right decisions together.”

Cox shared the digital spotlight with Democratic candidate Chris Peterson, whose campaign called the forum the first event open to the general public featuring the competing gubernatorial hopefuls.

With only 41 days left prior to the general election, Peterson renewed his demands for direct action by the governor in response to the worsening statewide pandemic.

“I’ve called for a statewide mask mandate,” Peterson argued. “I’d know that idea is not popular, but I believe that it’s critical in order to keep people safe in this state. The science is irrefutable now that, if we don’t put masks on, we’re posing a risk not just to ourselves but also to others.”

Peterson, a lawyer, said that the governor’s office has ample constitutional authority to impose statewide health precautions in a dire emergency like the ongoing pandemic. Cox countered that Utah’s governor “is not a dictator” and that use of arbitrary power is not sustainable in a prolonged emergency.

Cox added that a more appropriate role for the governor’s office is to keep people informed, work with experts and health care professionals to determine policy for response to the pandemic and to participate in collective decision-making with local officials.

In addition to demanding a statewide mask mandate, the Democratic candidate has called for Herbert to replace Cox as head of the state’s COVID-19 task force.

During the online forum, Peterson argued that, in addition to a mask mandate, Utah needs to reduce the time for COVID-19 testing results to 24 hours, triple or quadruple the number of people assigned to contact tracing of infected individuals and make high-quality personal protective equipment more available to the general public.

Peterson issued the call for Cox’ removal on Sept. 18 after a surge of coronavirus cases in Utah County forced state officials to report a record 1,117 new cases of COVID-19, marking the first time that Utah had seen more than a 1,000 positive test results in a single day.

But Cox believes the Utah County situation demonstrates the wisdom of Herbert’s handling of the pandemic.

“In Utah County, where we have two of the state’s largest universities, we know they are driving the (coronavirus) surge …” the lieutenant governor explained. “So we sat down with people like (state epidemiologist) Dr. Angela Dunn and other state health experts to have a very serious discussion with them about what needed to be done. Their recommendation in this case was that our response should be as surgical as possible. Then we talked to members of local government about options.

“The governor has been very clear that he wants to leave decisions about mask mandates in the hands of local officials. In the case of Utah County,” Cox added, “he was able to apply pressure by strongly suggesting that a local mask mandate was appropriate. Then we rolled back Provo and Orem to an orange restriction level and suggested that it might be necessary to roll back the entire county. That provided an incentive for local officials to make the right decision.”

Utah county officials responded to that “incentive” with a mandatory mask mandate and the presidents of Utah Valley and Brigham Young universities issued sharply worded warnings to their students about abiding with health precaution guidelines.

During each major election year, the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute collaborate on a forum entitled “Informed Decisions.” Those events are aimed at educating Utah voters on critical policy issues and acquainting them with candidates in key political races around the state.

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