Spencer Cox won’t say whether he supports a mask mandate

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Lt. Gov Spencer Cox, is pictured by the front steps of the Utah Capitol on Tuesday, July 7, 2020, following his win in the Republican primary race for Utah governor over former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Cox refuses to say whether he agrees with Gov. Gary Herbert that there should be no statewide mask mandate or whether he believes there should be such a requirement.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has taken to Twitter multiple times over the past few weeks to espouse the benefits of face masks, including research that shows they lower the severity of COVID-19 and reduce transmission rates.

He’s implored his 43,000 Twitter followers to wear a face covering when out in public. And he’s noted that the data showing a reduction in cases in Salt Lake County since leaders issued a mask mandate there is “just too clear.”

Despite his social media admonitions, the Republican gubernatorial candidate refuses to say whether he supports a statewide face mask order. He’s declined multiple requests from The Salt Lake Tribune to address his views on the matter.

“We don’t have any further comment beyond the many tweets the lieutenant governor has issued on the importance of wearing masks,” his campaign manager, Austin Cox, said over the weekend.

Cox’s opponent in the November election, University of Utah law professor and Democrat Chris Peterson, has made his stance clear. He called for a statewide mask mandate earlier this month, noting that such an order should be temporary and provide exemptions for special groups such as infants, those with medical conditions, the hearing-impaired and those in workplaces where masks are infeasible.

Does Cox agree with Peterson? Or does he side with Gov. Gary Herbert, who up to this point has declined to require a mandate, but has said he’d consider one if the outbreak get worse?

Cox won’t say.

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

As cases continue to rise, Peterson argues now that Cox needs to let voters know where he stands on the issue.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that face masks are one of the most effective strategies we have for controlling the virus and restarting our economy back up to speed,” he said. “So his position on that is a relevant topic of discussion in the upcoming election.”

David Magleby, an emeritus political science professor at Brigham Young University, agreed that Cox has a responsibility to let voters know where he stands on the issue.

“He’s running to be governor of Utah. This is an indication of how he would lead the state of Utah,” he said. “Are we going to request people do things right or will we mandate it?”

While it’s true that the coronavirus pandemic and mask wearing have been politicized on the national level — a reality Magleby attributes to President Donald Trump’s leadership in the White House — the political scientist said it wouldn’t be too damaging to Cox to come out in support of a mask mandate if that’s what he believes should happen.

“I don’t see what Spencer Cox feels he has to lose,” he said. “He has the nomination of the Republican Party in Utah. So I think he should be able to feel free to say what he really thinks about this.”

Herbert has thus far avoided issuing a statewide mask mandate, as has been implemented in at least 30 states across the country, and instead has ordered face coverings in all state-run buildings and at public K-12 schools. He’s also allowed several local governments to issue their own requirements, which are currently in place in Grand, Salt Lake and Summit counties, as well as in Springdale, located outside of Zion National Park.

Herbert has raised the prospect of imposing greater restrictions if the rolling seven-day average of new coronavirus cases doesn’t drop below 500 daily by Aug. 1. As of Monday, that rolling average is at 544.

“I’m going to give the people of Utah the opportunity to show what kind of people they are,” the governor has said.

Cox and other state leaders also have taken to pleading with Utahns to cover their mouths and noses voluntarily.

“Please, just wear masks,” Cox said during an appearance on the “Nitty Gritty” podcast earlier this month. “Don’t make us make you. Just do it.”

A new report out of Brigham Young University found masks were overwhelmingly effective at containing the spread of the virus. And Salt Lake County argues that its own data shows the effectiveness of a mandate.

Leaders there last week released graphs showing that the county’s daily count of new cases has flattened or even dropped slightly, even as numbers have climbed elsewhere in the state. The number of hospitalizations has also leveled out compared to the rest of Utah, relieving some of the pressure on the medical system.

While Cox won’t answer questions about a possible mandate, he has expressed wholehearted support for mask wearing, including in a recent Twitter thread in which he shared two stories “of people I know well” who contracted the coronavirus.

The first was a friend whose family he said hosted an indoor, maskless baby shower with about 25 people, none of whom was exhibiting symptoms at the time.

“The next day, one sibling had a fever,” he wrote. “By the end of the week 8 people tested positive. Fortunately they have all recovered, but some had very serious symptoms. And 1 person infecting 8 is obviously no bueno. Fortunately those 8 quarantined and didn’t infect anyone else.”

In contrast, Cox noted that a colleague of his who tested positive had potentially exposed at least 20 co-workers before he began exhibiting symptoms.

“The difference? He wore a mask in every meeting and physically distanced when possible,” he wrote. “All 20 people tested negative.”

Cox ended the thread by urging those who are inside with people other than their immediate family to always wear a mask.

But his Twitter followers have begun to question Cox’s support for mask wearing, with dozens calling on him to address the mask mandate issue after a Saturday tweet in which he lauded the health benefits of wearing a face covering.

“Maybe a mask mandate is in order?” one Twitter user wrote in response.

“Your tweets about the wonders of masks are hollow, Spencer, if you aren’t willing to consider a mandate,” another said. “Lives and long-term wellness are literally on the line.”

Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah, has also weighed in.

“The Cox campaign said they won’t ‘politicize’ COVID response,” she wrote in a recent Twitter post. “We’re in the middle of an election to pick leadership. Holding candidates accountable for their failed leadership is not politicization — it’s voter education.”