SALT LAKE CITY — The two major-party candidates in the Utah governor’s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Democratic University of Utah law professor Chris Peterson, stressed their differences on the state’s response to COVID-19 Tuesday during what is expected to be their final debate before the November election.

But the tone of the hourlong debate didn’t turn sharp, even as the candidates again disagreed over whether they’d impose a statewide mask mandate, an issue that has come up repeatedly in the campaign as the number of cases of the novel coronavirus in Utah has climbed to record levels.

“I support where we are today. I support what Gov. (Gary) Herbert has chosen to do, leaving mask mandates to individual communities to make that decision,” Cox said, adding he has urged Utahns for months to voluntarily don masks to protect their neighbors and that surveys show more people than ever are doing so.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speaks while debating Chris Peterson in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Cox and Peterson are rivals to become Utah’s next governor. | Trent Nelson

“Everyone should wear a mask. If you have to have a law to mandate you to wear a mask, first of all, you’re probably not going to do it anyway and it doesn’t make that much of a difference,” the lieutenant governor said as more than a quarter of the Utah Debate Commission’s gubernatorial debate focused on the pandemic.

Peterson reminded the debate moderator, longtime radio talk show host Doug Wright, and the virtual audience that he’s been calling for a statewide mask mandate since July.

“I would do it today because we’ve had skyrocketing infection rates. We are now the fourth worst as a state in the country in terms of per-capita outbreaks,” the first-time candidate said. “We’ve got to do more to get this virus under control because it’s critical for saving lives.”

The law professor said he hates wearing a mask, but “there are a lot of things we do in a civilized society to take care of one another,” including stop lights, speed limits, and “if you show up to work, you probably have to wear your pants. There are things we need to do.”

Asked about school reopenings, Cox did take a swipe at the Salt Lake City School District for not returning to in-person learning, calling it “a huge mistake. It is damaging our kids and that needs to change right now.” He warned the repercussions could be worse in some cases than the virus.

Peterson was critical of other decisions made by the state in dealing with the virus, many under Cox’s leadership as the initial head of Utah’s response. He said the state has spent more than $100 million — some “wasted” on apps and remedies that didn’t work — without getting the virus under control.

Chris Peterson speaks while debating Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Cox and Peterson are rivals to become Utah’s next governor. | Trent Nelson

Cox deferred to Peterson on a question about his requirements to lead the coronavirus post, saying it was “hard to respond to his arguments against me.”

His concerns “are not personal,” said Peterson, who believes public health care experts should be in charge. “It’s not about me. It’s not about Spencer. It’s about saving people’s lives. People’s jobs are on the line. Small businesses are collapsing. It was clear to me our coronavirus response was careening off track.”

Cox said he brought together experts in his role and that “being governor or lieutenant governor means you have to make incredibly difficult decisions.” He said the state has had successes, including a low mortality rate and what he labeled the best economy in the country, even though “it hasn’t been perfect. We’ve got a long way to go.”

That includes helping Utahns, especially in the tourism industry, who are still unemployed. Cox said $15 million has been set aside to help workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic to train for new positions, and he promised an anticipated “renaissance” as manufacturers relocate to the United States will “bless the lives” of Utahns.

Peterson praised the hard work and “hustle” of Utahns but said the virus “is holding us back. To have a healthy economy, we have to have healthy people. The reason people aren’t going out and shopping, going to theaters, going to a restaurant, in the numbers they were before is because they’re afraid of getting sick. And they should be.”

He said the state should create jobs by bonding for large, shovel-ready projects.

Both candidates opposed increasing the tax on food that was part of the tax reform package backed by Herbert and Republican lawmakers but later repealed amid a citizen-led referendum.

However, Cox and Peterson differed on increasing the funding available for education.

Cox said the inequity between school districts must be addressed through seeking more compensation from the federal government for public lands that aren’t subject to property taxes. He complained that “palatial” schools are being built in some districts because of “perverse incentives” in how taxes can be used.

Peterson said Cox would take money from wealthier school districts and that school children shouldn’t be “fighting over scraps.” Cox said that is not what he was talking about and later told reporters more money for schools could come from selling off public lands located within municipalities.

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Raising income tax rates for the wealthy was backed by Peterson, who said those who make more should be expected to pay more in taxes. “It’s not because I’m some wild-eyed liberal. It’s because I read it in the Bible,” he said.

Peterson said he wants to see the state’s single income tax replaced with lower rates for low and moderate earners. He said during the debate he doesn’t want to raise taxes, but told reporters afterward that could depend on how much additional revenue could be raised by closing tax loopholes.

The pair are competing to succeed Herbert who did not seek reelection after more than a decade in office.

They participated in two virtual candidate forums last week, at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and the Salt Lake Chamber, as well as in their first actual debate during the Utah League of Cities and Towns’ virtual annual convention.

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