SALT LAKE CITY – Despite the best efforts of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to the contrary, the Utah gubernatorial race is increasingly becoming a referendum on the state’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The perceived shortcomings of that effort were the main focus of Democratic challenger Chris Peterson’s criticism of his political rival during a candidate debate hosted Friday by the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
Peterson charged that outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert and Cox have failed to satisfy the “first obligation of leadership,” which is to keep the public safe.
“We need to help ordinary Utahns stay on their feet while also implementing common sense safety guidelines to keep schools and businesses open,” the University of Utah law professor added. “The slow, patchwork response of our current politicians has placed the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Utahns in jeopardy.”
Peterson has repeatedly called for Herbert and Cox to implement a statewide mask mandate.
While Cox said he applauded the decisions by local authorities to implement mask mandates in Salt Lake and Utah counties, he expressed doubts about the effectiveness of an executive order making face coverings mandatory in more rural parts of Utah.
Other coronavirus counter-measures recommended by Peterson include reducing the time for COVID-19 testing results to 24 hours, enhancing contact tracing of infected individuals and making high-quality personal protective equipment more available to the general public.
An unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases has clearly put the lieutenant governor on the defensive on the topic of coronavirus response. The state set a record Thursday with 1,198 new cases reported, putting Utah’s seven-day rolling average at 916 cases.
Cox’ weakened position wasn’t helped by having to publicly walk-back a comment made earlier in the week.
“I’m still the lieutenant governor,” Cox said Tuesday during an online forum jointly sponsored by the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, “and I have no choice but to agree with the actions of the governor.”
Cox took pains at the ULCT event to emphasize that remark was a joke and that he fully supports Herbert’s reluctance to impose a statewide mask mandate and other restrictive precautions.
“The media loves nothing more than to drive the lieutenant governor and governor apart from each other,” Cox explained. “That is not helpful. It’s not good during a pandemic. We have one governor and I support the governor.”
But Peterson suggested that misplaced political loyalty is also “not good in a pandemic.”
“Thousands of people in our state are sick and tens of thousands are out of worked,” he argued. “Hundreds of businesses have shut down for good and, if we don’t get this virus under control, hundreds more could follow.”
Cox and Peterson will compete to replace Herbert in the November general election.