Gov. Spencer Cox Gives Update On Improved Drought Situation, COVID Vaccine Incentives And More
During his monthly PBS Utah press conference, Gov. Spencer Cox weighed in on several high-profile issues the state is facing — from drought solutions to the death penalty.
Over the summer, some people waited over an hour to get tested for COVID-19.
Cox said Utah “fell short of expectations” but in the past month, the situation has improved. The longest reported wait time last week was 20 minutes and most people waited about five minutes. He said the state hired 238 new people to help the health department and TestUtah. Twelve more sites were also added and hours of operation increased.
Cox announced Thursday the state is opening a designated testing lane — which will have three different types of tests available — at its site on the west side of Salt Lake City for people getting ready to travel.
“All of those tests aren't available in every testing location,” he said. “Some test sites do have rapid antigen tests. Some sites have the PCR test. It can be very confusing for the traveler to know which one they're supposed to get … so we're going to try to ease that burden on travelers as much as possible.”
Still, Cox said Utah will not institute a vaccine or testing requirement to travel here.
The health insurance program for state employees will offer cash incentives for its members to get vaccinated, Cox announced. People ages 12 to 49 will get $100, people 50 years old and up will get $250 and getting a booster shot will earn eligible people an additional $50.
“[The insurance provider] believe that the savings in hospitalizations will pay for the program,” Cox said.
Cox and the state Legislature have been pondering ways to push back against President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing mandate. It requires businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers are either vaccinated or tested weekly.
However, Cox said he would veto any bill that banned businesses from issuing vaccine mandates of their own accord.
“I'm a huge believer in free markets,” he said. “A mandate not to allow businesses to have mandates is a mandate in and of itself. It’s government still telling businesses what they can and can't do. And I'm opposed to that.”
Cox delivered some hopeful news about the state’s drought situation. Moisture levels in the soil are now about average, so the state is in a much better position than it was in June when those levels were at a record low.
“That doesn't impact our reservoirs right now,” he said. “It will impact our reservoirs next spring. That means when snow does come, it will actually flow into our reservoirs instead of going straight into the ground.”
Cox thanked Utahns for conserving water this summer.
“That's made it possible so that if we do have drought conditions extending until next year, we will have drinking water available,” he said.
Some Utah lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to repeal the death penalty and offer alternative charges for prosecutors like life without parole, 45 years to life and 25 years to life.
Cox said he didn’t yet have a position on the proposal.
“I've been supportive of the death penalty in the past,” he said. “But certainly I've had occasion to reevaluate my feelings about the death penalty. And I think that certainly any time we take a life, especially government taking a life, it's a very conservative thing to do to pause and make sure we always get that one right.”
One of Cox’s platforms when he ran for governor was making education funding more equitable. He didn’t get behind any big funding changes during the 2021 legislative session, which began just two weeks after he took office. But Cox said he’s working on it.
“We've been meeting with the Legislature, working on some funding issues,” he said. “We have to make an even more serious effort to get additional funding to those schools and to those neighborhoods, to make sure that there are the same opportunities. I can't guarantee those outcomes, but we should certainly be able to guarantee, in fact I believe our Constitution requires, that every kid in Utah have access to a high quality education.”