SALT LAKE CITY — With Election Day just a week away, candidates in some of Utah’s biggest races are curtailing campaigning in person because of the state’s ongoing surge in coronavirus cases, while others say they’re taking precautions when they meet with voters.
“Look, it’s just not safe,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson said after announcing his campaign was suspending all personal appearances through the Nov. 3 election and calling on other candidates to do the same, including his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Peterson said he is canceling events like a “honk and wave” that was scheduled for Monday afternoon in West Valley City, as well as drive-in campaign rallies being planned later in the week where he would have addressed supporters from the back of a pickup truck.
“I’ve had second thoughts about every in-person event since the COVID crisis hit,” the University of Utah law professor said, adding now such events are just too risky even with masks, social distancing and other precautions, given the “skyrocketing” number of Utah cases due to “extraordinarily high levels of community spread.”
Cox had no in-person campaign events planned in the final full week of campaigning, according to his campaign manager, Austin Cox. He said appearances by the lieutenant governor in Magna and Sandy last Saturday on behalf of Utah House candidates were supposed to be his final in-person events even before cases hit record levels.
“It was intended, as the cold weather does not allow for outdoor campaigning and we do as much as possible outdoors given what we know about COVID,” Austin Cox said, adding that “masks were required and enforced” at the Saturday events, which included meeting indoors with a pizzeria owner.
Peterson’s last in-person event was a day earlier, at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, where he rolled out a new rural economic plan at a town hall meeting held in the student union last Friday. The audience wore masks and practiced “some social distancing,” he said. “They did their best.”
COVID-19 has been a key issue in the race to succeed Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection. The lieutenant governor’s role in helping to lead the state’s response was first criticized by his GOP primary opponents, and Peterson has urged stronger measures, including a statewide mask mandate, since July.
While polls show Cox with a wide lead over Peterson, Utah’s 4th Congressional District race is too close to call. Both Rep. Ben McAdams, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, and Republican challenger Burgess Owens are continuing to do at least some limited in-person campaigning.
McAdams, who was hospitalized with the coronavirus earlier this year, is set to appear at a Utah Farm Bureau forum Wednesday where most of the audience will watch online, his campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said. He said McAdams’ last in-person event was when United Utah Party candidate Jonia Broderick endorsed him on Oct. 14.
There are no plans for getting out the vote by going door to door, Roberts said. Instead, the campaign will contact Utahns “the same way we’ve been talking to voters all election cycle: via text, phone call and digital organizing,” he said. “Our campaign feels the last thing our community needs is for us to send people door to door right now.”
Owens spoke at a couple of small events to distribute campaign signs last Saturday, where, “like with everything, social distancing and masks were stressed,” his spokesman, Jesse Ranney, said.
Asked if Owens was continuing to meet with voters in person, Ranney said, “we will continue to follow state guidelines, encourage wearing masks and social distancing. With spikes we’re focusing on primarily virtual events and tele-town halls.”
The issue of how campaigns handle the coronavirus pandemic may be less difficult for Democrats to navigate, University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said, since there’s a Republican governor and a Republican president in charge of the response at the state and national level.
“This is a case where really, everything looks so different. I think what you see with Democrats is that they’re in a slightly better position in the sense of this is a little easier politics for them because they can just say, ‘Look, we’re not going to do those things for public health reasons,’” Burbank said.
While that’s not a huge help for Democrats campaign-wise, he said it does “play into the narrative that they’ve largely been making, which is to criticize the way Republicans have been handling this.” For GOP candidates, “there just a broader set of arguments out there.”
But Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said he sees the pandemic precautions as hurting his party’s candidates.
“It inherently disadvantages candidates who are unwilling to continue to flout social distancing and mask-wearing rules,” Merchant said. “You’re not getting your name out there the same way somebody else is. This gives Republicans an inherent advantage.”
But he said although the party advised candidates to stop door-to-door canvassing in the spring, that’s eased over the summer. Now, Merchant said, he’d like candidates to be careful but he’s “not going to be the guy to tell candidates not to do what they see as in the best interests of their campaign.”
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said he’s advising candidates to abide by county health regulations.
“I trust our candidates and they have shown they are highly sensitive to those issues,” Brown said, noting the “bulk” of campaigning is taking place online. “They’re aware of the county health guidelines. They’re aware of the concerns people have and I think they’re doing a good job.”