SALT LAKE CITY — The Democratic candidate for Utah governor responded to the state's record count of new COVID-19 cases Friday by calling for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, his opponent for the governor's office, to be removed as head of the COVID-19 Community Task Force.
Cox was appointed to the position in early March by Gov. Gary Herbert, but law professor Chris Peterson implied Friday that the lieutenant governor is out of his depth.
"Under our state constitution and laws, the primary role of the Lt. Governor is overseeing elections and maintaining oversight of lobbyists," Peterson said in a news release. "The Legislature created and funded a Department of Health to oversee public health crises. Instead of acting within his traditional constitutional role, the Lieutenant Governor has crossed out of his lane and usurped the function of the Department of Health.
"Since then we have seen the state’s COVID response hijacked by unproven and ineffective treatments, defective cell phone software, testing delays, and insufficient protective equipment for vulnerable frontline workers."
Peterson said Cox is a "good person" but should step aside and "let our medical professionals and scientists do their job."
In response, the governor's office said Cox "will continue to play a role" in the state's pandemic response as a constitutional officer of the state.
"The constitution sets those terms, not the politics of the day," the office said in a statement. "Moreover, it appears the candidate’s petition has not kept abreast of important changes in our response — our office has not relied on the COVID-19 Community Task Force as a decision-making body since March 26, when we established the Unified Command Group.
"This shift enhanced collaboration between public health and safety experts, who meet daily to set the course for Utah’s COVID-19 response. That command reports directly to the governor and the lieutenant governor, as is appropriate in this crisis."
The Cox campaign provided its own statement later Friday. "As he’s said from day one of the pandemic, the state’s response to COVID-19 is not political or partisan," the campaign said. "Gov. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Cox are working closely with medical professionals, policy makers and citizens across the state to protect public health and rebuild the economy.”
Cox's role in the pandemic response has been a frequent target of the lieutenant governor's opponents this election year. His challengers in the Republican primary regularly criticized aspects of the state response, often calling it too stringent, while Democrats have tended to express the opposite concern.
A legislative review released earlier this week said the state could have been more thorough when awarding contracts for testing and a contact tracing app.
Despite those concerns, however, Cox has demonstrated a huge polling advantage over Peterson in surveys taken since the primary. He will debate Peterson for the first time Friday, Sept. 25, and again on Sept. 29.