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SALT LAKE CITY — Before discussing redistricting, COVID-19, and several other topics on Tuesday evening, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox apologized for hosting a town hall over Facebook Live during a Utah Jazz game.
"I hope that if you're not watching me that you're watching the Jazz beat the Atlanta Hawks," he said.
Here's a rundown of some of the topics Cox discussed during the town hall.
No veto for redistricting maps
Cox says he won't veto the Utah Legislature's congressional district map, despite criticism that the map would gerrymander the state and divide communities.
The first map, which includes Utah's four U.S. congressional districts, passed the Utah House 50-22 in the Utah Legislature's special session that began Tuesday, with five House Republicans joining all House Democrats in voting against approving a different map than those proposed by the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission.
The map is expected to pass the Utah Senate with a similar supermajority, which means that a veto from Cox would be symbolic. Cox said such an action would be a "mistake."
"I'm not a bomb-thrower, and I believe in good governance," Cox said.
Members of the legislature worked very hard on the maps, and it's important for the governor to maintain a good working relationship with legislators, Cox said.
The governor added that he's always supported including urban and rural areas of Utah in each of the districts — a point that many state Republicans have used to defend the maps in the past few weeks. He also insisted it was impossible not to have rural areas in each district.
But the governor also acknowledged that counties being split up into multiple districts is frustrating. In the legislature's proposed maps, portions of Salt Lake County would be included in each one of the four districts, which has led to criticism that the maps would be dividing communities.
Cox was fighting a similar fight as a county commissioner in his home county of Sanpete, which was split into three different districts for 10 years, he said.
"It was incredibly frustrating for those 10 years, I have no doubt that many of you are feeling that way," he said. "It is and it can be incredibly frustrating."
Utah is still experiencing a surge in cases, mostly due to the COVID-19 delta variant, Cox said.
The number of cases has fluctuated in recent weeks in the Beehive State, and health experts aren't exactly sure why that's happening, the governor said.
One theory is that Utah is caught between regional trends of the virus's spread, Cox said. States in the Pacific Northwest such as Idaho, Washington and Oregon experienced a spike, but cases in those states have since gone down. Now, states in the southwest, such as Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, are experiencing surges. Since Utah is in the middle of those two geographic regions, the up-and-down case trends may be related to that, the governor added.
Utah also has a large population of kids who weren't eligible for the vaccine until a week ago, which could have contributed to higher case counts, Cox said. Additionally, Utah has larger households, and COVID-19 spreads more rapidly among households, he said.
Cox urged people to get vaccinated if they haven't already, and to get booster shots.
"Those who are most at risk, we encourage you to get your booster to ramp up that immunity," he said.
State leaders are working to understand and address labor shortages in Utah right now, Cox said.
"It is a problem with every single occupation in the state of Utah, we have a big labor shortage happening right now," he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the shortage, but several other factors are contributing, Cox added. More people are retiring, fewer young men are participating in the labor force, and there is more government assistance available, he said.
Over the past few years, the state's focus has been more on creating jobs, Cox said. Those are important, but there needs to be a shift toward investing in people instead of just creating jobs, he added. That means investing in more education and training for Utahns, and jobs will follow, he said.
"We need to be more thoughtful about our people," Cox said.
Several new initiatives are in the works to address mental health for Utahns, the governor said.
The governor's office is working to increase availability for mobile crisis outreach teams across urban and rural Utah, Cox said. Those teams include mental health professionals who can arrive in a nondescript car and help someone who is having a mental health crisis, instead of police or firefighters who might not have that training being dispatched to the area, he said.
Additionally, the state is working to create 24-hour mental health clinics, which would be similar to urgent care clinics, but for mental health needs. Those haven't been created yet but will be in the works soon, Cox said.
"We're changing the way we deliver mental health services in the state," Cox said.
Great Salt Lake water level
Cox visited Washington, D.C., recently and met with Senate and House minority leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. With the federal GOP leaders, Cox discussed the need to send federal aid to Utah to help protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, one of the state's most important, Cox said.
The water level of the lake has been decreasing amid Utah's extreme drought over the past year.
Several bills related to water conservation will be introduced soon, Cox said. He encouraged Utahns to tell their representatives and senators to support the bills.
He encouraged Utahns for cutting back on their water usage during the drought, but said the work isn't over.
"This is something that I'm incredibly serious about," Cox said. "There's so much more that we need to do."