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Huntsman sick during GOP gubernatorial candidate event, but had tested negative for COVID-19

Event intended to show businesses how to ‘get back into the economy’

Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. bump elbows after a virtual forum featuring the Republican primary gubernatorial candidates at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. bump elbows after a virtual forum featuring the Republican primary gubernatorial candidates at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he’s been sick but tested negative for COVID-19 before the first in-person candidate forum in the Republican primary race for governor was held earlier this week at the Grand America Hotel, an event intended to showcase the state’s reopening.

“I’ve been feverish, (with) bronchitis the last two days,” Huntsman said after the 1 1/2-hour forum on Thursday. “So I went and had a COVID-19 test a couple of days ago because they were saying, ‘You’ve got like four of the symptoms, you better go get checked out.’ So we did. And all good. We just got it back in time for the debate here, the forum.”

He said that he still felt “sick, but I’m going to go home and go to bed so I can burn off this flu.”

At the Salt Lake Chamber and Economic Development Corporation of Utah forum, held without an audience, Huntsman was deliberately positioned at one end of the stage because of his illness, said Jacey Skinner, the chamber’s general counsel and vice president of policy.

All of the GOP gubernatorial candidates — Huntsman, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright — were spread across the stage at least 6 feet apart to maintain social distancing during the forum, which was streamed on YouTube and Facebook Live.

Skinner said candidates were instructed to wear face masks when they were not on the ballroom stage but declined to say whether they complied. The precautions taken at the forum did not include taking the temperature of the forum participants or requiring that they be tested for the deadly new coronavirus.

Hughes, who has been critical of the state’s measures to stop the spread of the virus citing the impact on the economy, showed off a navy blue face mask printed with his campaign logo after the forum but said he’s “not wearing the mask.”

His campaign manager, Greg Hartley, said later that “the chamber, the hotel, the participants and all others involved did a good job of physical distancing without an executive order demanding they do so.”

Cox, who heads the state’s COVID-19 task force, said the feel of candidate events like the forum and those held virtually have changed.

“It’s so different doing these types of events, the ones just online (where) you’re kind of in a room by yourself with just a computer. And even here, there are some people in the room but there’s no audience,” he said. “It’s always tough to read the audience.”

Wright said it was “invigorating” to be onstage with the other contenders in the June 30 GOP gubernatorial primary, “to feel their energy and the presence.” He praised the chamber and EDCUtah “for making it happen, for practicing safe social distancing and the other CDC guidelines.”

Skinner said the long-planned forum was expected to have to be held online, via Zoom, but that changed after Gov. Gary Herbert shifted the state’s risk level from high to moderate on May 1, allowing some businesses to reopen with limitations intended to protect workers and customers.

“We thought, we’ve got the guidelines. This does allow us to do things a little bit differently. We thought it would be a really good opportunity to show how you can, in fact, comply with guidelines,” she said, and demonstrated to the business community “how they could get back into the economy.”

The Grand America Hotel “went above and beyond just making sure this event was as safe and sanitary as it could possibly be,” Skinner said, with employees in masks and gloves “wiping down every surface repeatedly” and fogging the rooms with disinfectant every hour, starting the day before.

The number of people allowed in the ballroom was kept close to 20, with others sent to an overflow room or the individual green rooms assigned to each candidate, she said, adding the forum was the first event at the Grand America since the shutdown.

The Utah Debate Commission is set to host a series of primary debates on June 1 and 2 at the PBS Utah studios on the University of Utah campus. Besides the governor’s race, they will also host candidates running in the 1st and 4th Congressional Districts as well as for attorney general.

The commission’s executive director, Nena Slighting, said the local, state and federal guidelines in place at that time will be followed. That means in addition to no studio audience, candidates may have to forego a makeup artist and follow strict limits on how many people they can bring.

“We haven’t made a final decision. We’re just looking to ensure the safety of all who participate in this debate,” Slighting said. “We want the candidates to feel comfortable and I think they’re very enthusiastic to participate on the debate stage with the cameras.”