Utah governor candidates debate virus response, mask mandate
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox went head to head with Democratic law professor Chris Peterson in Utah’s gubernatorial debate Tuesday over the state’s pandemic response and the viability of a face covering mandate.
The two candidates are competing to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who isn’t running again after more than a decade in office. Cox, who became Herbert’s lieutenant governor in 2013, defeated three other Republicans during the June primary, including former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. Peterson did not have a primary race.
Cox is heavily favored to win in conservative Utah, where voters haven’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years.
Utah has been in the midst of a record-setting surge in new coronavirus cases over the past few weeks largely driven by college-age students in Utah County, home to Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. The state now ranks fourth in the country for newly confirmed COVID-19 infections per capita, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
In the debate Tuesday evening, Cox and Peterson sharply disagreed on Utah’s response to the coronavirus and whether to implement a statewide face covering mandate.
Peterson has repeatedly called for a mandate since the state began experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases in July.
“There are things that we need to do as a society to take care of one another,” Peterson said. “This will not last forever but right now we need to wear masks, and that’s why I will require it as a matter of law.”
Cox, on the other hand, has stood behind the governor’s decision to allow city and county officials to decide if they need bans. Herbert and Cox have urged residents to wear masks for months but stopped short of ever implementing a statewide order.
“If you have to have a law to mandate you to wear a mask, first of all, you’re probably not going to do it anyway,” Cox said. “It doesn’t make that much of a difference.”
The debate moderator Doug Wright said the issue of a statewide mask mandate was by far one of the most asked questions for the candidates on social media.
For Cox, the coronavirus crisis created both a spotlight and a target. His role in the state response put him in front of voters concerned about the virus and stuck at home during a shelter-in-place directive. But it’s also opened him up for criticism from both conservative mask opponents and those saying a statewide mandate is increasingly essential to keeping the virus under control.
There have been over 72,000 reported virus cases in Utah, and 457 people have died, according to state data. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
When asked what else should be done to limit the spread of COVID-19, Peterson stressed the need for increased testing, contact tracing as well as additional access to personal protective equipment to counteract the state’s “skyrocketing” infection rates.
Cox said the governor and lieutenant governor must make tough decisions during a historic pandemic. He highlighted the state’s successes with maintaining a low mortality rate of 0.6% and a 4.1% unemployment rate.
“It hasn’t been perfect,” Cox said. “We have a long way to go, but we are working together to find those solutions.”
Sophia Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.