As Gov. Gary Herbert’s right-hand man, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says he must stand by his boss’s decision not to impose a statewide mask order, even as coronavirus cases have recently surged to record levels in Utah.

“I’m still the lieutenant governor,” Cox, the Republican nominee to replace Herbert as governor, said during a candidate forum Wednesday. “I have no choice but to agree with the actions of the governor. And, look, I think there is wisdom in that.”

Cox’s nebulous stance on mask requirements stands in sharp contrast with the position of his rival, Democrat Chris Peterson, who has said it’s the governor’s responsibility to issue a comprehensive mandate in the interests of public health. The lieutenant governor’s comments also come a couple of days after his running mate, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, expressed support for an order on face coverings if county leaders don’t act.

“The latest spike is maybe testament that we need to maybe do a little bit more as a government, unfortunately," Henderson, a Spanish Fork Republican, told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week.

State leaders, including Cox, have been grappling with exploding COVID-19 case numbers as the infection has spread among teens and college-age adults at the start of the fall school term. With Utah County the epicenter of the surge, Herbert is moving the college towns of Provo and Orem from the yellow, or low, restriction level, to orange, or moderate. The county also implemented a mask order Tuesday night.

However, during Wednesday’s forum with the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, Cox said there is some merit in avoiding a blanket approach to face coverings. Cox joked that in Sanpete County, where his family has lived for generations, people have been practicing social distancing for 160 years.

“So it certainly is different in different parts of the state,” Cox said. “And we can work closely together to make the right decisions."

Peterson and Cox didn’t interact directly during Wednesday’s hourlong virtual forum and separately fielded questions posed by the moderator, the Hinckley Institute’s Jason Perry. During his portion of the forum, Peterson said he believes local governments should generally make decisions for their communities but added that this model doesn’t work for every situation.

“It’s appropriate in an emergency for the ... governor’s office to engage in pretty direct action to take care of people and prevent the contagion of this dangerous disease,” said Peterson, who will face Cox on the November ballot.

The Democrat, a University of Utah law professor, clarified that he’s not arguing that a farmer or rancher in the middle of nowhere needs to wear a mask while working outdoors. Still, he said, there’s a place for commonsense restrictions that lead the state in the right direction during the current public health and economic emergency.

Cox called the spiking case numbers “very troubling” and said state leaders have consulted health experts, including state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn about how to tamp down the surge. The advice Herbert and others have received isthat we be as surgical as possible,” the lieutenant governor said.

Moreover, as the pandemic has worn on, Herbert has shifted away from emergency directives that circumvent the Legislature and suspend state statutes, he said.

“The governor isn’t a dictator,” Cox said. “And so what you see is now ... it’s bringing people together to help make those decisions."

The lieutenant governor has faced criticism over the state’s handling of COVID-19 from his political rivals during the primary race and now the general election contest. Although he hasn’t always been a prominent leader in the pandemic response, Cox has enjoyed influence behind the scenes as Herbert’s adviser and has recently reemerged in a more visible role heading the state’s emergency command structure.

The question of Cox’s stance on mask mandates has cropped up several times in recent months. At one point, the lieutenant governor declined The Tribune’s requests for an interview on his position. Then, in a late August interview, Cox said he supported Herbert’s decision against ordering face coverings across the state.

With the recent increase in coronavirus case numbers, Peterson last week urged Herbert to remove Cox from his leadership role in the state’s fight against the pandemic, a request that the governor said he wouldn’t entertain. In a prepared statement, Herbert’s office noted that Cox is a constitutional officer and, as such, would continue to play a part in combating COVID-19.

“The constitution sets those terms," the statement continued, “not the politics of the day.”