SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic candidate for governor Chris Peterson called Wednesday for his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, to step up efforts to protect Utahns from the spread of COVID-19, including by mandating that face masks be worn in public.
Standing on State Street near where Utahns gathered in 1983 to pile sandbags that diverted an overflowing City Creek from downtown businesses and landmarks like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Temple Square, Peterson said the state needs to do more to tap that same spirit against the deadly virus.
“We have to recognize what’s happening for what it is. It is a natural disaster and we need to take steps as a community to come together and solve that natural disaster,” he said. “Sadly, however, I believe that so far, Utah state government’s coronavirus response has been inadequate.”
The University of Utah law professor warned “the worst part of this pandemic, both in terms of public health and economic hardship, is still ahead of us. If our public servants do not lead, we are risking an economic and a health catastrophe.”
Cox, just recently declared the winner of the June 30 four-way Republican gubernatorial primary, was named to head the state’s COVID-19 task force by Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.
“Just as he did during the primary election, Lt. Gov. Cox won’t be politicizing the response to COVID-19,” his campaign manager, Austin Cox, said in a statement in response to Peterson’s news conference. “He will continue working closely with the governor, Legislature, medical professions and community and business leaders.”
Last week, Herbert announced he’d give Utahns until Aug. 1 to lower the spike in virus cases before considering either a mask mandate or a return to tighter restrictions. Peterson had previously stopped short of calling for a mask mandate, suggesting it only be used in hard-hit areas where local governments fail to act.
Although the governor did order that masks will have to be worn by students, teachers and staff in schools and on buses when classrooms reopen next month, Peterson said not enough is being done and called for a better plan because “the stakes are too high. We’ve got to keep the kids and teachers safe.”
Some 20 other states have already implemented mask mandates, Peterson said, adding there should be “some exemptions and reasonable limits,” such as babies and toddlers, those with health conditions including mental illness, dental patients, diners and possibly inmates.
Enforcement of such a mandate, he said, should be reasonable and done with compassion.
“There may be some warnings that need to be given. If there are persistent offenders who refuse to cooperate, maybe it’s appropriate for them to get the equivalent of a parking ticket,” Peterson said, adding that enforcement details would be up to Herbert. “We are a liberty-loving state and I’m a liberty-loving guy.”
Other actions he said the state needs to take are coming up with emergency plans for producing N95 masks for front-line workers who come in close contact with the public, including those in health care and the classroom, as well as improved testing and contact tracing for the virus.
Peterson recalled being brought as a child to view the makeshift river being built along State Street, and said he was stunned at seeing Utahns “come together from all walks of life” under the direction of the state’s last Democratic governor, the late Scott Matheson.
“I came to this spot because I’m trying to get people to remember that in our past, in better times when we were more bipartisan and more cooperative, and Gov. Matheson was in charge, we had community spirit and leadership that averted a catastrophe from a natural disaster. That’s what we need today.”
He quickly added he is “cheering for Gov. Herbert and I’m cheering for Lt. Gov. Cox. They are good men. I respect those guys. They’re doing the best that they can. But we’re here today because they need to step it up. They’re not getting the job done.”
Peterson was joined at the news conference by Brian Poole, a Brigham Young University microbiology professor and an adviser to the campaign on coronavirus, who said masks are “incredibly important” because they are “very, very effective” at protecting people around the wearer.
“What masks do is they protect you from hurting somebody else. So this is not a situation with this virus where we can say, ‘This is all about me,’ or ‘I’m just going to take care of my health and let everybody else take care of their health.’ Because we all depend on each other,” Poole said.
He said he’s worried that people don’t understand that the virus is killing many older people, who, if they are at least 80 years old, have a 1 in 5 chance of dying if they catch it. Even though younger people may not die as frequently from COVID-19, he said they can end up hospitalized with long-lasting problems.
“This virus is much more serious than a small death toll,” Poole said, calling wearing masks one of the “very simple things we can do to try to curtail the spread of the virus, to protect everybody around us and to make our society ready to open back up again.”
Cache County community activist Karina Brown, Peterson’s running mate, said “wearing a mask is a form of community service to others.” Brown said some rural areas of the state, including Hyrum in Cache County where a meatpacking plant is located, are already experiencing outbreaks.