Utah Gov. Cox says surgical masks won’t work against omicron, feds spend like ‘drunken sailor’

The state governor encourages lawmakers not to rely heavily on this year’s budget surplus for ongoing expenses.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Governor Spencer Cox speaks during The PBS Utah Governor's Monthly News Conference, Dec. 16, 2021 at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City.

Gov. Spencer Cox is warning state lawmakers to be careful with this year’s budget surplus — saying the federal government has likely created much of that excess by spending money like a “drunken sailor.”

“We don’t believe that a lot of this money is real,” Cox said Thursday in a speech at an economic and public policy summit in Salt Lake City.

Utah lawmakers will have an estimated $1.2 billion in excess funds at their disposal when they get down to designing the state’s budget during the upcoming general session. But Cox says that with the federal cash infusion skewing the state’s financial picture, it is hard to tell how much of this increase represents permanent revenue growth.

“We have so much money now, but it’s this false, cotton-candy high,” he said. “And so we have to be very responsible and very careful about how we do this.”

The federal government has pumped billions of dollars into Utah between coronavirus aid and the INVEST in America Act, a bipartisan infrastructure package. And instead of expecting the current budget surplus to come back year after year, the state should treat some of it as a one-time bump and invest it in projects rather than in recurring expenses that will permanently inflate the budget, Cox said.

Though the governor has rolled out a $25 billion budget proposal, state lawmakers are in charge of writing the annual spending plan and don’t have to follow his recommendations.

In his budget plan released last month, Cox has proposed offering a $160 million grocery credit that would help low- and moderate-income households recoup the cost of the state’s sales tax on food. He wants to put another $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act money toward water conservation and restoration projects and allocate $228 million to affordable housing.

He also has called for $1 billion in increased education spending, adding that the state needs to invest heavily in its public schools to repair the learning losses that students have been suffering during the pandemic.

Though the omicron variant is tearing through Utah and its schools, driving case counts to unprecedented heights, Cox said he is hopeful infections will peak and then subside within a couple of weeks.

“For those of you wearing cloth masks right now, good luck,” he said after mentioning the variant’s high transmissibility. “And by the way, I would just say, good luck with your surgical masks, too, because every doctor I talk to says yeah, they don’t work with omicron either.”

Dr. Andy Pavia, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, on Friday said he was concerned Cox’s comment would cause confusion. All masks aren’t created equal, he acknowledged, but “it’s a question of good, better, best” rather than effective vs. ineffective.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox joins others at The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake in November 2021 wearing a KN95 mask.

Cox has come under fire recently for exempting state-run facilities from mask mandates imposed by Salt Lake County and other local governments. The governor’s office said in an email that “the best tool against COVID-19 continues to be vaccinations and boosters.”

In response to the omicron surge, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking at revising its mask recommendations to encourage people to wear KN95 and N95 face coverings rather than cloth ones if they can do so consistently, the Washington Post has reported.

Pavia told reporters Friday that N95 masks offer the greatest protection against coronavirus, and K94 or KN95 face coverings are the next-best and are more comfortable and easy to obtain. Surgical masks are next in terms of effectiveness, and even cloth masks afford some measure of protection “if you have nothing else,” the physician said.

“So Gov. Cox was misleading,” Pavia said. “An N95 is best if you have access. A KN-95 is better. A surgical mask, particularly if everyone is wearing them, is pretty decent. And cloth masks are better than nothing.”

The Salt Lake Chamber and University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute hosted the summit, where House Speaker Brad Wilson and other legislative leaders outlined their priorities for the session that will begin Tuesday.

Between Cox and other state leaders, there was broad consensus that Utah must act this year to preserve the Great Salt Lake and to ameliorate the affordable housing crunch.

“We cannot afford to become California,” Cox said. “We won’t let that happen, at least not under my watch. So we are going to pass some pieces of legislation that may be a little painful for people, but it’s the right thing to do to make sure that future generations can enjoy Utah.”

— Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this report.