SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes stated in a debate with Democratic challenger Greg Skordas on Wednesday that the Utah Debate Commission knew he couldn't answer questions about mask mandates.
But commission co-chairman Wayne Niederhauser said the commission didn't tell the Reyes campaign it wouldn't ask about masks or any other issue.
"We never talked to them about any specific questions," he said.
The commission puts together a list of questions on pertinent topics before a debate, which are asked by the moderator, reporters or college students.
"We don't acquiesce to the requests that we avoid certain questions," he said. "That would be against our policy. We can ask any question that we feel is necessary."
During the debate, a Dixie State University student asked, "Do you support a broad mask-wearing mandate and, if so, do you think it would be legal?"
Reyes said he couldn't respond.
"I'm defending those right now," he said, apparently referring to a lawsuit some Utah residents filed against Gov. Gary Herbert last month over his executive order requiring children to wear masks at school.
"I asked the debate commission. They knew I couldn't respond to those questions, but if you want me to talk about mandates in general and you want me to talk about COVID generally I can, but I think it's an unfair question," Reyes said.
Niederhauser, a former GOP Utah Senate president, said the Reyes campaign told the commission before the primary election debate in June that the attorney general can't address questions involving pending litigation.
"It wasn't a request. They made a statement. 'We cannot answer questions that are associated with pending litigation,' and that was prior to the primary. We didn't have any conversation prior to this debate last night," Niederhauser said.
Niederhauser said the commission wasn't aware of any litigation regarding a mask mandate. "Because we're not a mandatory mask state, we thought it was fair," he said.
Skordas answered the question by saying Utah is afraid to require people to wear masks. He said a hard, fast two-week mask mandate would drive down the surging number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
In September, eight residents sued Herbert and the Utah Department of Health in 4th District Court over the governor's coronavirus executive orders, including mandating that children wear masks at school. Since it was filed, 17 more residents have asked to join the lawsuit as plaintiffs.
The 46-page lawsuit alleges that Herbert overstepped his authority and that the plaintiffs' children are being "deprived of their constitutional right to free and open schools because of the unlawful acts of the defendants."
The attorney general's office, which represents the state in such cases, responded to the complaint Monday and asked it be dismissed.