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Utah Gov. Blasts Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric, But Won't Push To Make Mask Mandates Easier

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The highly contagious delta variant has generated fresh criticism in recent weeks for the federal government's shifting response and guidance. It's also generated fresh criticism for Republican governors, like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, who have refused to allow renewed restrictions and mask mandates in places where cases are surging and where vaccination rates remain lower than the national average. But some Republican governors are also pushing back on anti-vaccine rhetoric. That includes Governor Spencer Cox of Utah, who joins us now. Welcome.

SPENCER COX: Thank you, Ailsa. It's great to be with you.

CHANG: Great to have you with us. So I want to ask you - because last month, as COVID cases were rising in your state, you, like many others, called this the pandemic of the unvaccinated. And I'm looking at the numbers in Utah now. Hospitalizations are still going up in your state. Do you think you need to shift the messaging?

COX: Well, we continue to push that messaging. And the good news is it appears to be working. Eighty thousand people in the last three weeks have changed their mind about getting the vaccine. That's a really big number. And so we're hoping that we've crested that wave with the delta variant. And these new vaccinations are certainly helping.

CHANG: I just want to talk about upping the vaccination rate in Utah and how you intend to do that because you have said that you don't want to follow in New York City's footsteps and require proof of vaccination to, like, enter indoor public spaces. But I am looking at the CDC numbers here showing Utah is now just behind New York City in weekly cases per capita. Why are you still holding back from taking, say, like, the more aggressive steps we see in New York?

COX: Well, there are a couple reasons. The law does not allow the government to require proof of vaccination.

CHANG: In Utah.

COX: In Utah, yes, yes, in Utah. But we do allow that for the private sector. And that's something that we've been vocal about. I'm a free market Republican. I always have been. And I believe that the market will play a major role in doing this.

CHANG: Well, besides leaving it up to the market, what kind of incentives are you thinking of to encourage more people to get vaccinated?

COX: The legislature has to approve any monetary incentives. And up to this date, they have not been willing to do that. As we're looking back at the numbers in other states - we've been able to process those - it doesn't look like they've made a huge impact. And so we're still not sure if that's something that the legislature is going to do.

CHANG: OK. Let's turn to masking 'cause I saw that you signed a bill that keeps school districts from mandating masks on their own, leaving it up to county health officials. Why can't schools just make those decisions for themselves independently?

COX: Well, that was part of a much broader bill that was negotiated with the legislature, again, well before the delta variant was a thing. And the legislature decided that it was important to leave that up to the local health departments to - in conjunction with county officials to make those decisions.

CHANG: Well, let's talk a little bit more about politics. I'm curious what you think of certain governors who have basically outright banned any kind of mask mandate in schools or vaccination requirements. I wonder, what do you make of that?

COX: Well, certainly, that's their prerogative. I - what I hate about all of this discussion is how sure everyone is of themselves. And I think that's a mistake that's happening across the board. The question is a balancing one. Every special educator that I've talked to, every kindergarten and first-grade teacher that I've talked to have talked about real issues, cognitive delays that come from wearing masks because of the inability to see and mimic and verbalize and connect, those types of things. Now, the question is, do the health outcomes outweigh that?

And then I hear people on my side of the aisle saying that the virus is absolutely meaningless when it comes to young people, that there are no impacts at all. And that's not true, either. And so I wish there was just a little more humility, that there was a little more room for nuance. And I don't know that anybody's completely right on this one.

CHANG: On that point of humility, what did you make of Asa Hutchinson's recent turnabout? I'm talking about the Republican governor of Arkansas. He said that he was wrong to have signed a ban on mask mandates back in April given how conditions have changed in his state. At what point do you think you would be willing to change your mind?

COX: Well, I love Asa. Asa's is a great guy. Anytime someone in politics is willing to change their mind or admit that they've made mistakes, I think that's a really positive thing and something that we should celebrate. Of course, the numbers in Arkansas are incredibly high as their hospitalization rates have gone up significantly. Again, ours doesn't completely ban masks. It just changes the - where that decision is made instead of being made by the governor. So I think those circumstances are really different.

CHANG: At what point do the numbers have to reach for you as the governor to institute a mask mandate in your state? Ever - would you ever?

COX: I don't have the authority to implement a mask mandate in the state of Utah without a change by the legislature. And I...

CHANG: Would you advocate for the state legislature to support you in a mask mandate should the numbers reach a certain level?

COX: Well, again, you're asking for hypotheticals, and I don't know what that number is. What I do know is that our numbers are going down over the last five days, which is great news for us. And the other thing that we've done - I think we're the only state to do this - is we're actually getting masks, KN95 masks, for kids in schools so that those families that are deeply concerned about this will have an option for their kids. And I believe that's a real positive step in the right direction.

CHANG: Governor Spencer Cox of Utah, thank you very much for joining us today.

COX: Thank you so much, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.