The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact politics nationally and locally. How officials respond is dividing citizens not just in traditional ways (party, geography, income, etc.) but by personal perceptions of the disease danger. This reaffirms the old adage that everything — even disease — is political. We offer our insights.

States and communities are reopening for public activities while the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing and health officials are becoming alarmed. What pressures is this placing on policymakers and candidates?

Pignanelli: “Those in public authority must retain the public trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing or put the best face on nothing.” — John M. Berry, author, “The Great Influenza”  

This new technique to divide Americans and Utahns is awful. One side is demanding the maintenance of social distancing requirements and restricting public gatherings until a vaccine is ready. Others (including me) are pushing an immediate reopening of all activities while urging vulnerable individuals practice a safe lifestyle. Unfortunately, the split is causing nasty cross accusations (“You care more about restaurants than grandma”; “Your concerns are way overblown,” etc.). Oftentimes it is surprising to learn who defies demographic and ideological predilections in choosing a position.

Utah breaks yet another daily record with 546 new confirmed COVID-19 cases

A handful of lawmakers and local government officials are bravely creating a platform for other political and community leaders to use in articulating a needed statement. Utahns must be told the unvarnished truth — the coronavirus is forever with us. Sustaining the pandemic restrictions until “something “changes” fosters a false hope. We can adjust interactions with the elderly and health compromised to lower mortality. But, the unspoken harsh reality is our society has not dramatically altered lifestyles in reaction to other threats. We tolerate the risk of death from diseases, automobile accidents, drug overdoses, etc. while promoting massive efforts to prevent occurrences. A similar approach is warranted as we can no longer choke our economic, educational, artistic, religious, cultural and charitable activities because of the current pandemic.

Those good people inhabiting the shelter camp should be respected for their humanitarian inclinations. So those of us on the other side must reach out and unify as the natural and unstoppable course of reopening develops.

Webb: With lots of data and experience, we may conclude, in retrospect, that shutting down the economy was an overreaction. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we should have been even more restrictive.

But here’s what policymakers and business leaders must do until an effective vaccine is available: Using good data and all the science we’ve learned in the last few months, determine what level of infections, hospitalization and deaths we can handle, and are willing to tolerate, so that the economy can survive and grow robustly.

That may sound callous, but it is reality, and politicians should be honest about it. We simply can’t tamp down the economy forever, and opening up does mean more infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

However, we already do precisely that with many other dangerous things. Our goal is zero highway deaths. But we actually tolerate a certain number of deaths because we don’t mandate that cars be built like tanks, and we allow travel at 80 mph rather than 20 mph. We allow unhealthy lifestyles, like smoking and using alcohol, knowing that a certain level of deaths will result.

We must strike the right balance between freedom/prosperity and safety/restrictions. Personally, I’m willing to risk an 80-mph freeway death to get where I need to go with dispatch. And I’m willing to risk coronavirus infection by going to the grocery store or meeting with a client.

Of course, we must take appropriate precautions in both examples. And certain people at high risk should be extra careful whether driving or risking exposure to COVID-19.

Media reports regarding COVID-19 testing continue, including stories about problematic federal results and accusations against the public-private partnership TestUtah. A prominent gubernatorial candidate received wrong test results from a county health department. Could government competence during the pandemic be a major “11th-hour” issue for the primary election?

Pignanelli: Because Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is leading the COVID-19 state task force and is consistently topping various gubernatorial primary polls, he is the expected target for opponents. The controversies are easy to exploit in campaign communications.

Webb: Certainly, the state response to the pandemic is a legitimate political issue. But I think most voters understand that leaders have been doing their best operating with little information or precedent at the pandemic’s outset. Utah’s performance has been pretty good, despite some mistakes.

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Recent polling indicates the gubernatorial primary is essentially a close, two-person race between Cox and Jon Huntsman, Jr. What’s the latest?

Pignanelli: Political experts who once dismissed the effect of unaffiliated voters registering as Republicans to vote, are suggesting this unusual dynamic could be a reality.

Webb: Huntsman is a fine leader with remarkable state, national and international experience and outstanding relationships. Cox is smart, capable and just a terrific person that everyone likes. It’s too close to call. (For the record, Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright are also excellent candidates.)

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email:

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