SALT LAKE CITY – In the ongoing gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has been doing his best to carefully ignore Democratic challenger Chris Peterson’s Sept 18 demand that Gov. Gary Herbert replace Cox as head of the state’s COVID-19 task Force.
But a question from Glen Mills of ABC4 Utah brought up that elephant in the room during Tuesday’s candidate forum sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission, forcing the lieutenant governor to publicly defend his leadership of the state coronavirus response for the first time.
“This is a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in over 100 years,” Cox told the debate’s television and radio audiences. “We brought together and are still working with more than 250 individuals every day. They are the best and brightest in the state, including medical professionals, emergency responders and other experts who make recommendations to the governor, who in turn makes the final decisions.
“The wisdom of that process shows in our successes. We have the best economy in the country during the pandemic with 4.1 percent unemployment and one of the lowest mortality rates at .6 percent.”
But Peterson questions whether those experts’ recommendations are being impacted by political considerations due to Cox’ role on the task force and his candidacy for office. He cites Herbert’s resistance to the idea of a statewide mask mandate as possibly being motivated by politics.
“That’s the problem and it’s not about me or Spencer,” Peterson countered. “It’s about saving people’s lives …
“I agree that we’ve had some successes, but we’ve also had some real challenges. We’ve spent almost $100 million and still don’t have this virus under control. And we’re closing low-income health clinics in Ogden, Provo and Salt Lake that could be used to fight the pandemic. We’ve wasted money on a useless cell phone app and on medicines of dubious value. We need better leadership on this virus.”
With the Utah Department of Health reporting 694 new coronavirus cases Tuesday and a rolling seven-day average of more than 1,000 new positives for the past week, questions about the pandemic predictably dominated the first half-hour of the UTDC debate.
When asked by a Utah Valley University student how he would encourage college students to wear face coverings, Cox revealed that the state has developed a new targeted mask education program.
“We need your help,” the lieutenant governor explained. “We just launched a campaign for young people, created by young people, to help young people understand the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and taking this very seriously.
“My message to you young people is please, please take this seriously. The coronavirus may not hurt you, but it could kill someone else.”
That appeal prompted Peterson to renew his early July challenge to Cox and Herbert to impose a statewide mask mandate and repeat his usual mantra calling for increased COVID-19 testing, increased contact tracing for infected individuals and increased protective gear for frontline workers.
“If you have to have a law to wear a mask, you’re probably not going to do it anyway, “ Cox replied. “In that case, (a mask mandate) probably wouldn’t make that much difference.”
Cox added that a recent statewide survey by observers from the COVID-19 task force found that 86 percent of Utahns were already wearing masks.
During the debate, Peterson also found fault with the state’s approach to reopening schools and churches.
“I think that I would have worked with education officials to try to reopen schools a little more gradually,” the University of Utah professor suggested. “We should have started with the youngest children first, because they have the hardest time with distance learning and seem to the have best immune response to the disease.
“With respect to churches, maybe we should have started with services being held outside. That would have allowed us to go slow and maintain social distancing, which is important in this critical time when so many lives are at stake.”
But Cox argued that reopening Utah schools was necessary to keep the state’s children from being left behind in terms of learning.
“We were working very closely with school districts and there are amazing innovations happening,” he explained. “Thanks to those changes, when we start to see coronavirus outbreaks, we can pivot to a hybrid model of learning. We saw this in Pleasant Grove, where we were able to go to hybrid learning and have more social distancing to get an outbreak there under control.
“This is a dance we’re going to have to do over the next few months to have children back in school and also keep them safe.”
While acknowledging some mistakes along the way, Cox insisted that he is proud to have been part of Utah’s response to the coronavirus.
“Every time that I start to feel bad about where we are as a state,” he admitted, “I talk to my colleagues across the country. They reassure me that Utah is doing it the right way by working together to reduce the spread of this virus and save lives.”