Utah's next governor will take the helm of a state battered by a virus that has killed thousands of Americans, forced businesses to close and resulted in record unemployment levels.

Because of that, the pandemic has emerged as a central theme for candidates vying for the state’s top executive post — and the five rivals are all working to convince Utahns they’re most capable of navigating the trying times ahead and bracing the state for any future calamities.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who has played a leading role in Utah’s coronavirus response, says the state’s approach has balanced economic and public health interests and has drawn accolades from across the nation. On the other hand, former House Speaker Greg Hughes has critiqued the state’s handling of the crisis and called for a swifter reopening of the economy, arguing in a Thursday candidate forum that “you can’t burn down this village to save the village.”

Rather than focusing on specific policy plans, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright is highlighting his personal experience as a businessman to argue he’s the best suited to confront the pandemic’s economic fallout. And former Gov. Jon Huntsman is striking a hopeful tone by casting the COVID-19-related challenges as an opportunity for the state.

“I don’t think we should shoot for anything short of a rebirth," he said Thursday during the candidate forum hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber and EDCUtah.

What should the state do now?

During the forum, Huntsman commended the state for doing its best to contain the damage from the pandemic. But he argues Utah leaders need to do more by opening up the state’s rainy day fund to aid small businesses.

“We need cash. That’s what businesses need,” he said. “Plain and simple.”

The state should also support businesses through the coronavirus-induced recession by working with with bankers on flexible repayment schedules and by instituting tax holidays, he added.

Hughes has been harsher in his critiques and has blasted state leaders for overemphasizing the advice of health experts, who he says have pushed for a heavy-handed approach that will scar the economy. If he were heading the state response, Hughes says, he said he would assemble a “strike force” that would give greater representation to the business community, local officials and state legislators.

“The full weight of this is being borne on the back of the working people of Utah,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “And it’s wholly unfair, and it’s being done that way because you have health care officials driving decisions.”

Gov. Gary Herbert’s phased reopening — which uses red, orange, yellow and green risk levels to ramp up the economy — moves too slowly, added Hughes. He contends that officials should reopen the state immediately, while maintaining common-sense social distancing precautions to protect vulnerable groups from the disease.

But Cox repudiated the idea that business and public health are conflicting priorities.

He noted that Herbert’s administration has convened an economic response task force to guide state decision-making amid the public health emergency.

“There are far too many people who have tried to tear us apart and tell us that you either have to focus on the economy or you have to focus on people’s health and you can’t do both,” he said Thursday. “We reject that notion. We believe that we can by saving people’s lives, by flattening the curve.”

And he said new government programs aren’t going to resuscitate the state’s economy after the pandemic subsides. Instead, state leaders can pull the state out of the recession by unleashing Utah’s innovators and entrepreneurs.

Wright, owner and president at Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, says he is one of those entrepreneurs.

“I have 48 employees,” he said. “Going to bed every night worrying about how we’re going to make payroll, how we’re going to make our mortgage payment, our lease payments, how we’re going to stay in business, how we’re going to deliver our service to our clients, how we’re going to redefine ourselves, has been absolutely traumatizing for many small business people across the state. And I uniquely understand that.”

Chris Peterson, the lone Democrat remaining in the race for governor, says economic recovery is impossible without addressing the public health crisis created by COVID-19. The worst approach would be to “try to plow through this virus by trying to get herd immunity,” he said in an interview this week.

Going forward, the state has to ramp up its testing, tracing and treatment efforts to control the virus and create safe conditions for easing stay-home measures, he added. Meanwhile, regulators and elected leaders should hold accountable debt collection agencies and landlords to make sure “we do not have a spike in homelessness," he added.

A state plan for the future?

Cox last week released a seven-point plan for fortifying Utah against any future emergencies after the current pandemic.

The plan calls for encouraging homegrown manufacturers so that Utah can keep its local supply chains intact during a disaster. The state should stockpile personal protective equipment, medical supplies and petroleum and develop a mineral reserve, according to Cox's proposal.

Several other components of the plan relate to bolstering the state's technological capabilities — by upgrading telehealth capacity, improving online education and encouraging work-from-home initiatives. State leaders should safeguard the supply of food and water by supporting the Lake Powell pipeline project and backing policies to expand farming in Utah, according to his plan.

Finally, Cox says he would restore and increase the state’s rainy day fund, with the goal of hitting $1 billion in savings by the end of his first term.

“To be sure, Utah was better situated to handle this calamity than most or all of our peers,” Cox’s plan states. “But the pain and trauma of this pandemic can also serve as a wake-up call for us to reimagine our current approach and trajectory.”

Like Cox, Hughes said Utah is positioned comparatively well to handle a crisis, in part because of the emphasis the state’s predominant faith places on preparedness.

"I think Utahns embrace it as a principle," Hughes said.

The state’s next leader needs to look beyond the possibility of another pandemic and consider all sorts of potential disaster scenarios — everything from a major earthquake to an electromagnetic pulse that knocks out the power grid, he added.

On Thursday, Huntsman said the pandemic has exposed the fragility of supply chains, many of them linking to China, and argued that Utah should be ready to welcome businesses that are looking for alternatives.

“We have to be a safe haven. A safe haven for capital and for ideas and for brainpower,” he said.

Wright, however, argued that one of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic is that the state has to be better prepared in the future — something he would do by meeting with experts from a number of fields to understand what calamities the state could face.

“Let’s brainstorm what might happen and start creating some contingency plans and then hope they never happen but be prepared if they are,” he said.

Looking toward the future, Peterson said he’d solidify his relationship with local and regional partners to strengthen the state’s ability to collaborate during an emergency. While he would welcome input from business representatives, the University of Utah professor made no apologies for his plan to rely on the voices of experts.

“We disregard the advice of scientific experts at our peril,” he said.

Huntsman said he plans to sit down with public health experts once the threat of the coronavirus has passed to understand the lessons learned from this pandemic and ensure the state is better prepared for the next one.

Those conversations might help the state understand how to isolate and protect the most vulnerable populations — older adults and people with preexisting conditions who he estimates make up 20% to 22% of the population — while also keeping the economy open “with people who we know are healthier and were able to survive this round,” he said. Public health experts may also be able to provide insight into what the state could have done to attack the virus more efficiently.

“What can we do next time in terms of eliminating that?” he asked in an interview after the debate. "Is it just PPE or is there something else we need to add to it? I think there are a lot of areas that can be looked at and learned from for the next pandemic — and there will be one.”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report

Editor’s note Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.