Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox now says he was joking earlier this week when he remarked that he has “no choice” but to agree with his boss, Gov. Gary Herbert, on the state’s COVID-19 policy, and he blamed the media for trying to sow discord by focusing on the comment.

“The media loves nothing more than to draw a lieutenant governor and a governor apart from each other,” Cox, who’s running for governor against Democrat Chris Peterson, said during a Friday debate. “That is not helpful. It’s not good during a pandemic. We have one governor in the state, and I support the governor and the decisions he makes.”

Cox said his “no choice” statement — delivered during a Wednesday candidate forum organized by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics — was “clearly a joke, and everyone was laughing at that.”

No one laughed at the comment, according to a recording of the forum, although Cox and the moderator were the only people onscreen at the time. Cox did smile as he delivered the remark.

As Cox has balanced his Republican run for governor with helping Herbert lead the state’s coronavirus response, his stance on mask mandates hasn’t always been clear. Herbert so far has declined to issue a statewide order on face coverings, even as coronavirus cases are surging to record levels in Utah.

Asked during the Hinckley Institute forum if he agrees with letting local governments handle mask mandates, Cox said: “I’m still the lieutenant governor, and I have no choice but to agree with the actions of the governor. And, look, I think there is wisdom in that.”

There is merit to refraining from blanket mandates because of the vast differences between various communities in Utah, Cox continued. He repeated some of these points Friday during the debate hosted by the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

“If you implement a mask mandate, and you don’t have local support and local buy-in, guess how successful that mask mandate or any mandate is going to be?” he said. “I applaud the governor for his willingness to reach out to local officials, to work very closely with local officials.”

Despite suggesting that he agrees with Herbert about avoiding top-down mandates, Cox didn’t give a yes-no answer about whether he personally supports a comprehensive face-covering mandate in either Wednesday’s or Friday’s candidate events.

In response to questions from reporters on Thursday, Herbert said Cox is “certainly free to differ from me” on the issue of masks. But Herbert said both he and his lieutenant governor are following the best medical advice available to them.

Cox said Friday that he and Herbert have had differences of opinion in the past seven years, but he didn’t give any examples.

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.

On the other hand, Peterson has come out strongly in support of a statewide order on masks and doubled down on that position Friday.

The debate moderator, Deseret News editor Doug Wilks, noted that Utah — with one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the nation and the lowest jobless rate — is weathering the pandemic relatively well compared to many other states. Given those successes, Wilks asked the Democrat if he could outperform the Herbert administration in responding to the public health crisis.

But Peterson attributed Utah’s low death rates to the comparative health and youth of the population rather than any initiative undertaken by the Herbert administration. He added that the state’s leaders must follow health experts and data in responding to the pandemic.

“And for those that don’t believe in science, I’m sorry, but we have to try to do everything we can to take care of one another. That’s what loving your neighbors is about," he said. “The first obligation of leadership is to take every action you can to keep the public safe. That’s what I’ll do.”

Cox and Peterson both argued that the state needs to slash testing turnaround times and hire additional contact tracers to manage the spread of the virus. Cox also agreed with Peterson about the importance of widespread mask usage but said Utahns are heeding directives about face coverings, adding that mask usage in the state is “up to 80% and climbing.”

Racism and equity

The gubernatorial hopefuls also spoke about race and policing, with both of them arguing that law enforcement needs more training and resources.

Asked whether institutional racism exists, Peterson said he believes it does. At the same time, police right now are feeling “demoralized and underappreciated,” he said. Law enforcement agencies need more mental health and counseling services to help officers deal with traumatic on-the-job experiences, he said, and they also need more de-escalation training.

“There’s a lot of rumors going around that some people in the Democratic Party want to defund the police. That’s not so,” he said. “I haven’t met a single Democratic politician in this state that supports that, and I certainly do not.”

Peterson said he does believe a “relatively small” number of police officers are excessively violent and shouldn’t remain in law enforcement. The state can help identify these officers, he added.

Cox said he doesn’t subscribe to an either-or approach on issues of racial justice and policing, but he would continue to support sending crisis outreach teams to handle mental health emergencies that might otherwise fall to law enforcement. And there are institutional inequities in education funding that mean some of Utah’s students have more resources than others, he said. As governor, Cox said, he would try to level the playing field.

The lieutenant governor also noted that Utah’s police academy this month unveiled plans to increase the amount of anti-bias training and hand-to-hand combat instruction cadets receive. In addition, as protests for racial justice have filled Utah’s streets in recent months, state leaders have been working with the Martin Luther King and Multicultural commissions to address police reform and systemic inequities, Cox added.

“I actually believe that this is a positive time for our state,” he said. “That we will come out of this in a much better place than we were before because we are working collaboratively together as an example to the rest of the nation.”