SALT LAKE CITY — Just days before Utah’s primary election will decide the Republican nominees in the heated races for governor and in the 4th Congressional District, there’s a new controversy over efforts to mandate wearing face masks in some parts of the state to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As the number of novel coronavirus cases in Utah continues to spike, it was confirmed Thursday evening that Gov. Gary Herbert will allow Salt Lake and Summit counties to require masks be worn in public, a decision likely to fuel more friction between GOP candidates in both races around what’s largely become a political issue.

The governor’s race is front and center, with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox already accused of politicizing the pandemic as head of the governor’s COVID-19 task force by the three other Republicans running: former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.

Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox wears a mask as he waits to speak during the daily press conference on the state’s efforts to fight COVID-19 Thursday, June 25, 2020, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. The press conference was held mostly in Spanish in an effort to reach Utah’s Latino community, which has been hard hit by the novel coronavirus. | Rick Bowmer, Pool

Cox told Utahns to “just WEAR A DAMN MASK (Please),” in a series of tweets Wednesday night, calling it the “simple solution” to an “alarming” increase in cases. “That’s the answer. EVERY recent study shows that masks work. It’s the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for reducing spread until we get treatments and vaccine.”

But the lieutenant governor followed that by tweeting, “The bad news is that our country has figured out a way to screw this up and politicize mask wearing…because we politicize EVERYTHING. I can’t overemphasize how dangerous and destructive this is” and that “freedom, properly understood, requires responsibility.”

In the dozen tweets, he also said he’s speaking up again after deliberately being “a little less visible in our state’s coronavirus response” in the past few weeks. “With daily criticism coming from other campaigns, I worried that my public involvement might hurt our team’s response in this critical time.”

Cox told the Deseret News Thursday that mask wearing “shouldn’t have to be mandatory and we should be willing to do this anyway. But the governor and I are big believers in local control. We always have been. I’m a former mayor and a former county commissioner.”

The lieutenant governor said people “want to do the right thing” when it comes to dealing with the deadly virus but are getting tired of hearing from government officials. Especially since “everything we do or don’t do will be seen through this lens of how does this impact the election. That’s just a terrible way to do things.”

He said the governor’s race has played “absolutely no factor whatsoever” in how the state has handled COVID-19 and that he has continued to work behind the scenes. The task force, however, is no longer holding regularly scheduled meetings.

“I don’t care what other campaigns think,” Cox said, adding, “They’re going to take their shots. It’s sad to me. I think the people of Utah can see through those things but I can’t worry about that. We’ve got to just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Hughes, who opposed the shutdown during the outbreak, posted on Facebook Wednesday that the governor and lieutenant governor apparently “feel that it’s OK to continue trampling on our constitutional rights — just like when they shut down churches, approved of communist-style snitch hotlines, and crippled Utah’s economy.”

The former speaker warned, “If Cox and Herbert are willing to cede their leadership and sacrifice our personal liberties just one week before the election, imagine what they’ll do on July 1st. Enough is enough. Let’s end the government-imposed economic downward spiral....Let’s demand that the state protect individual liberty.”

Wright said he opposes a government mandate but plans to wear a mask more often himself because of the increased number of cases.

“If there is something we can do to save lives and to reduce the spread of the disease, then we should absolutely be doing it,” he said, adding, “I think it’s time for us all to evaluate and make good choices to help slow the spread and I’m personally going to do as much as I can to make that happen.”

The owner of a Park City-based real estate company with 14 offices, Wright said he’s encouraged but not required his employees to wear masks because they’re adhering to social distancing, sanitization and other health guidelines.

“I have consistently said that I believe that Utahns will make good decisions when they’re given the information and encouraged to do so. I believe in our constitutional rights and freedoms and liberties,” he said, labeling a mask mandate confusing and questioning whether it would apply to a jogger or a driver in a vehicle with open windows.

Huntsman, who until recently was in quarantine with the virus after initially receiving incorrect results informing him he didn’t have it, has focused his criticism on the testing process overseen by the state. His campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, referred to the need to wear masks in a statement.

“The people of Utah need to be proactive in stemming the tide of this pandemic, listening to the health professionals and their recommendations is critical to ensuring the physical health, economic health and mental health of our communities,” she said.

Among the four Republicans vying to unseat Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, only former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland is a staunch supporter of wearing masks. Mcfarland, who has held only virtual campaign events, said, however, that he views a mandate to wear masks as a “last resort.”

The other GOP candidates in the 4th District that includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties — state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, former NFL player Burgess Owens and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen — all have said it should be left up to individuals whether they choose to wear a mask or not.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the jump in the number of coronavirus cases is challenging to candidates on either side of the issue, as some voters may question whether the state is doing enough, while others may see any response as going too far.

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“In some ways, the real test of leadership is helping residents of the state work together to do what’s needed to stop the spread of the virus. No candidate has yet articulated a clear vision for how best to do that,” Karpowitz said, noting that wearing masks can “be framed as an issue of care, empathy and compassion” for others.

The counter to that message about masks, already being delivered by faith leaders in the state, is that the issue is about personal freedom, the political science professor said. However, he suggested that simply leaving actions up to individual choice doesn’t appear to be the solution.

“Many of the candidates have clearly wanted to emphasize individual freedom, which is an important value, but solving the crisis will also mean working together to do things that are difficult and uncomfortable — in other words, to make choices that we probably wouldn’t make in more normal times,” Karpowitz said.

“Leadership that effectively helps Utahns to see how their actions affect others and the broader community will be critical, especially because public health authorities have been clear that the current trajectory is not sustainable,” he said, adding the spike “raises the leadership stakes and puts more direct state action back on the table.”

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