Standing on the catwalk of a dōTERRA warehouse last week, Gov. Spencer Cox clipped a microphone to his navy blue suit coat before speaking with reporters at his first pandemic-related news conference since late August.
A television cameraman, making conversation as he helped the governor with the microphone, asked Cox how he was doing.
“All the days feel like Mondays,” Cox jokingly responded.
That particular Monday, Cox would be in for some social media backlash over the event at dōTERRA, which celebrated the company’s donation of sanitizing wipes to schools to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Some faulted him for highlighting a multilevel marketing company that was warned last year by the Federal Trade Commission to stop marketing its products as a cure or preventive for coronavirus. Others dismissed the event as a “publicity stunt” rather than a meaningful pandemic response.
It was the latest version of a more persistent complaint by Cox’s critics: That as the delta variant has driven case counts and death tallies to levels not seen since January, he’s largely been sitting on the sidelines.
Cox has pointed out that he’s in something of a bind when it comes to enacting broad public health mandates, ever since the Legislature this year passed bills curbing the emergency powers of public health officials and executive heads.
But for many, this excuse falls flat when the state’s hospitals are struggling to care for the surge of coronavirus patients filling their intensive care units.
“If you’re talking about something that’s truly an emergency, it makes sense for the governor to take this action,” explained Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, “because that’s kind of why we have an executive.”
Burbank, who also serves as an associate dean at the U’s College of Social Behavior and Science, said state legislatures want to be consulted by governors during emergencies and treated like coequal branches of government, but lawmakers lack the ability to move hastily and have full schedules during their short, annual legislative session. That leaves governors and their staffs better positioned to react in a fast-moving situation.
Cox, however, has receded somewhat as the face of the state’s coronavirus response, especially compared to former Gov. Gary Herbert, who convened weekly news conferences to address Utahns about the pandemic.
And unlike Herbert, he’s mostly refrained from wielding executive orders to combat the disease. It would be fruitless, he’s said, to impose something like a school mask mandate when the Legislature would almost certainly overturn it.
But despite the recent erosion of his broad emergency powers, Burbank and others say, Cox could still speak out more forcefully and make more use of his prominent position in the state. Some even argue that Cox should push forward with a school mask mandate, in spite of the likelihood that state lawmakers would thwart the effort.
“Standing up to the Legislature and making them own their decisions has value, even if they’re going to undo something,” said Ashley Anderson, a Salt Lake City mother and education advocate. “And you really can’t predict what they’re going to do.”
Rep. Ray Ward, on the other hand, contends that Cox has done the best he could “in a difficult situation” and has appropriately devoted most of his energy to the state’s vaccination efforts rather than getting embroiled in a standoff over masks.
“I’m very content with Gov. Cox’s leadership on the issue,” said Ward, a family physician and Bountiful Republican who sit on the House Health and Human Services Committee. “I think that he has set an example with his administration to make it very clear that he feels like vaccines work.”
A spokesperson with Cox’s office didn’t answer a series of questions from The Salt Lake Tribune about the governor’s approach to COVID-19.
‘What about standing up and speaking?’
Weekly coronavirus updates began during the Herbert administration and continued for the first months of Cox’s tenure — when he gave 20 of these briefings addressing his pandemic response — but he discontinued them in late May. In the four months since then, Cox has only held eight news conferences on the pandemic or to give reporters a general update on his administration’s activities.
In the meantime, physicians have been pleading with the public to take the delta surge seriously and offering grim descriptions of overburdened hospitals and fatigued health care workers.
Many have been disappointed at what they’ve been hearing from Cox when he does address Utahns about COVID-19, accusing him of both-siderism and tiptoeing around politically combustible topics. He came under fire at a late August news conference after talking about how “the anti-maskers and extreme maskers all just need to get over themselves a little bit.”
“Following CDC guidelines is not extreme,” Anderson said. “And our state should be following CDC guidance as a norm instead of participating in this notion that it’s debatable.”
Katie Matheson, deputy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, says Cox has a responsibility to inspire the state to conserve medical resources by “standing up for Utahns and maintaining visibility to provide transparency, guidance and hope.”
Though Herbert said each governor is in charge of his or her communication strategy, he does think regular briefings to the public are important.
Since leaving office, Herbert has been “pleasantly surprised” by how many people have thanked him for his weekly coronavirus updates and tell him the news conferences “gave us some assurance that things are being done and helped us feel calm and optimistic about the future.”
House Minority Leader Brian King says at least Cox is “better than Greg Abbott in Texas, and he’s better than Kristi Noem in South Dakota” — two Republican governors who have stridently resisted coronavirus mandates.
The Salt Lake City Democrat said he understands why Cox wouldn’t want to squander his political capital by issuing mandates that the Legislature would swiftly overturn. Still, the governor could do better in using his bully pulpit to counter the misinformation that runs rampant among his GOP base, according to King.
“What about standing up and speaking? What about just talking?” he said. “What about being a cheerleader and a real leader, in the sense of unequivocally and directly speaking to those who are creating the biggest problem on this issue and saying, ‘No, you need to knock this off.’”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told The Tribune that she and her team have “maintained open and consistent communication” with the governor during the pandemic and that her approach has been to be open with him about the decisions she makes on behalf of the capital city. She also doesn’t rely on the governor’s office for weekly messaging about the pandemic.
“My team in Salt Lake City has been working through every communication channel that we can muster to get good information out to our residents, especially our most vulnerable populations,” Mendenhall said. “Irrespective of the governor and any other state-level efforts.”
“We need to complement and amplify all of the good information that needs to reach our people,” she added.
To Ward, Cox’s administration has excelled in one of the most critical areas of COVID-19 communication: promoting vaccination.
Along with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, he said, Cox has worked closely with county health departments on outreach and has focused on putting out clear public health messaging that’s persuasive to the vaccine-hesitant.
“It’s one thing to do studies on vaccines and come back with statistical p-values and try and convince somebody when their Facebook feed is telling them other things,” Ward said. “But the very simple message, which I think they’ve done really well to hammer home, is to say, ‘This many people are in our hospitals today. This is the percentage that didn’t get vaccinated, and it’s a much lower percentage than the ones who are vaccinated.’”
Ward said as he sits in his clinic and talks to patients about vaccination, this is the message that seems to be resonating.
‘More of a handcuff’
Last year, Herbert imposed mask mandates for schools and state buildings, suspended indoor dining for a period of time and imposed business restrictions meant to promote social distancing and face coverings.
But amid public resistance to health mandates state lawmakers rolled back nearly all of the restrictions in April and May. They also empowered themselves to overturn similar health orders in the future. Their reaction, Burbank noted, was directed toward Herbert and the reauthorization of emergency orders, and not at Cox, who’d recently taken the helm of the state.
“The Legislature, for whatever crazy reason, just thought that they could mandate the end to a pandemic,” he said. “And that’s kind of where we’re at.”
These new rules have pushed the debate over this fall’s school masking requirements to the local level. County and city leaders have only supported masks in a handful of cases, to the frustration of parents concerned about the health of children still too young for vaccination.
Meanwhile, Cox has pointed to the Legislature to explain the lack of a state-level mandate.
“With the law, as it sits right now, we would need the approval of the Legislature to do something like that,” Cox told reporters at the dōTERRA event. “The Legislature said that they will not approve that. In fact, they said they would call themselves back into session and overturn anything like that.”
Specifically, Cox said, his administration proposed mandating masks only for schools where the coronavirus case counts had crossed a certain threshold. Legislative leaders rejected that idea, he said.
As classes resume, one of the governor’s primary COVID-19 safety initiatives has been distributing more than 2.2 million cloth, surgical-style and KN95 masks to K-12 students in the state.
Herbert acknowledges that state lawmakers “have a little bit more of a handcuff” on Cox than the former governor faced during the initial pandemic response in 2020.
“I don’t know if that’s a huge problem,” Herbert said. “But it is certainly a concern.”
The former governor added that he understands why the Legislature was worried about emergency orders that lasted for months at a time and said he believes there should be a healthy tension between state lawmakers and the executive branch.
Still, the Legislature only comes into session for 45 days out of the year, so a full-time governor and his team are in a better position to act quickly during a crisis, he contends. Herbert says those dynamics contributed to a “little tug-of-war” between him and state lawmakers during the pandemic — and ultimately to the legislative changes that have curbed Cox’s authority.
Matheson with Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive group that advocates for government transparency and accountability, doesn’t give Cox a pass simply because of the Legislature’s actions.
“In a functioning government, the executive branch protects the people from the worst impulses of the legislative body, and vice versa,” she said in the statement. “But in recent months, we’ve seen Governor Cox stand by while lawmakers — who have a history of underfunding public health and who have had protracted disagreements with public health experts — sacrificed the safety of Utahns by prematurely ending protective measures and taking tools that would help fight COVID-19 away from localities.”
It’s important to recognize that Cox signed the very bills that have diluted his emergency powers, Burbank says, calling this a “real strategic mistake” on the governor’s part.
“He should have said, ‘No, this is too far. This encroaches on the governor’s power. I’m going to veto this,’” the professor said. “He was a brand new governor. He didn’t want to have a veto overridden in his first legislative session. I understand that. But again, where that left him was basically signing onto this power play by the state Legislature.”
Ward declined to comment on whether he agreed with all the changes the Legislature made to limit the authority of public health officials, school districts and the governor. But he and other state lawmakers say Cox has done a good job since then of working within these new rules, in collaboration with the Legislature.
House Speaker Brad Wilson said he’s “sometimes befuddled by the narrative” that there are behind-the-scenes tensions between state legislators and Cox’s office over the COVID-19 response.
“It’s good political theater, I guess,” the Kaysville Republican said, adding that he believes the state’s new emergency response process is working well.
Vaccinations continue to rise, kids are back in school and businesses are open, he notes. And the state is promoting public health measures in a way that is “still giving people that ability to make decisions for themselves as much as possible.”
That’s a principle Herbert says he also tried to follow. Government can only do so much, he added.
“The people themselves have to take on the responsibility of their own behavior,” Herbert said. “And some do and some don’t.”