Utah Democratic governor candidate Chris Peterson criticizes state’s response to the coronavirus

(Photo courtesy of Chris Peterson) Pictured is Chris Peterson.

The Democratic candidate for Utah governor is urging a major overhaul to the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including immediate adoption of a statewide mandate to wear face coverings in public.

Chris Peterson, who is challenging Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on the November ballot, called Utah’s efforts thus far in combating COVID-19 “a story of failed leadership.”

“The worst part of the pandemic both in terms of public health and economic harm is still ahead of us,” Peterson said Wednesday at a news conference in downtown Salt Lake City. “If our public servants do not lead, we are risking an economic and health catastrophe.”

A campaign spokesman for Cox, who heads the state’s coronavirus task force, declined late Wednesday to respond to Peterson’s assertions.

“Just as he did during the primary election, Lt. Gov. Cox won’t be politicizing the response to COVID-19,” Austin Cox, campaign manager Cox for Governor, said in a statement. “He will continue working closely with the governor, Legislature, medical professionals and community and business leaders.”

Gov. Gary Herbert has declined to enact a statewide face mask requirement, preferring instead to urge public compliance out of a sense of civic duty as the state struggles to slow a recent dramatic rise in coronavirus cases. Republican leaders in the Utah Legislature also oppose a mask mandate.

Though critical of their efforts, Peterson said Wednesday he nonetheless “was cheering” for Herbert and Cox as they battled the pandemic. “I respect those guys. They’re doing the best that they can.”

“But we’re here today because they need to step it up,” he said. “They’re not getting the job done. They need to protect our teachers, kids and staff in our schools. They need to protect our businesses.”

The University of Utah law professor noted that more than 20 U.S. states have put mask requirements in place, along with several European and Asian nations that have so far been successful, he said, in limiting the spread of the disease.

Such an order should be temporary, Peterson said, and provide exemptions for special groups such as infants, those with medical conditions, the hearing-impaired, those in workplaces where masks are infeasible and others.

The candidate, who appeared Wednesday with his running mate Karina Brown as well as Brian Poole, a professor of microbiology at Brigham Young University, likened the pandemic to historic floods that hit Utah in 1983.

“It was a natural disaster, but we overcame it with teamwork, cooperation and a community spirit,” he said, standing at a corner where residents joined 37 years ago to build barriers that diverted floodwaters down State Street.

“Like sandbags in a flood,” the candidate said, “face masks are a simple and time-tested tool that can limit the invisible virus engulfing our neighborhoods.”

Peterson also called for an aggressive plan to manufacture, buy and distribute so-called N95 masks to the state’s front-line workers — including teachers and school staff. After months of delay, Peterson said, Utah “faces an unacceptable shortage” of the respirator masks, which have proved highly effective in filtering the virus.

State officials, he said, also need to help private businesses ensure they have adequate supplies of the masks for staff and employees “who are in harm’s way.”

Utah has also been “plagued by inaccuracy, inexperience, and delays in test-processing times,” Peterson said, and the state needs to revise its testing plans and build a program sufficient to track and contain the disease.

That need, he said, was underscored by asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 who can still unwittingly transmit the virus. Adequate testing, he said, was key not only to preventing the outbreak’s spread but also to ensuring Utah businesses can operate safely.

The Democrat called for a more robust plan backed with adequate resources to reopen Utah’s public schools before next month’s start of the school year. “The Utah Coronavirus Task Force,” he said, “has not provided adequate tests, tracing, and personal protective equipment resources to keep our families safe.”

The only acceptable number for deaths among students, teachers or other school workers, Peterson said, “is zero.”

The candidate berated Utah’s decision to spend $6 million on a no-bid contract to develop contract-tracing software that has yet to work, calling on state officials to quickly deploy better technology and ramp up hiring of contact tracing staff at the state Department of Health.

“This needs to happen now,” Peterson said. “It’s going to be too late for our kids to go back to school safely if we do not bring this viral outbreak under control.”