Governor's News Conference

July 19, 2021

"There is some good news on the horizon. The long-term forecast over the next six to 10 days and 10 to 18 days are showing the likelihood of above average precipitation as that monsoonal moisture carries north." Governor Cox 

NARRATOR: PBS Utah presents the Governor's monthly news conference. An exchange between Utah reporters and Governor Spencer Cox.

GOVERNOR COX: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It's great to see all of you. You're multiplying. There's more of you. This is the largest crowd we've had. So, we're grateful to have you here today. Thanks for taking time and thanks for reporting on these important issues.

So, I just want to start with a message around drought and our fireworks. This week, we are reporting that 98% of Utah is either in extreme or exceptional drought. That number continues to climb. Those are of course the two highest drought levels. 

Our reservoirs now are at about on average 58% of normal down from 59% last week, as Brian Steed, the director of the Department of Natural Resources mentioned, we are completely done with any runoff. And now we're relying on basically our emergency storage across the state. So, 26 of Utah's largest 42 reservoirs remain below 55% of available capacity.

As a result, our key messages remain the same as they have been since we declared the statewide emergency in March, only water your landscaping twice per week in Northern Utah, three times per week in Southern Utah. That's what we're doing at state facilities. And we think those individuals and businesses who are doing the same, we encourage everyone to conserve wherever they can, fix those leaky faucets and sprinklers. Remember to prioritize your trees, over your lawns. We want to keep those trees alive and only water in the early morning or evening. All of these measures by individuals and businesses can make a difference. 

There is some good news on the horizon. The long-term forecast over the next six to 10 days and 10 to 18 days are showing the likelihood of above average precipitation as that monsoonal moisture carries north. So, fingers crossed. We know St. George, Washington County, and Iron County got hit hard yesterday. That's good news. Those aren't drought busters. We need storms like that every day for a few weeks to get out of this drought. But every little bit certainly helps. 

Now I do want to repeat one of repeated requests, and that is that as we come towards Pioneer Day, that people, again, forego using personal fireworks. And I want to take this opportunity to thank people. It's actually making a difference. It's rare that we can point and say you made a difference this year, but here we have the data to back it up. So last week there were 35 total wildfires compared to 63 during the same week in 2020. So almost half of the number of wildfires that we had the year before, now 24 of those were human caused compared with 61 last year. So, to go from 61 human caused wildfires to 24 shows that people are actually listening and they're taking the measures that we need them to take. So, the week of July 4th also saw a similar change, fewer wildfires, almost half as many human caused wildfires compared to the same week last year.

Firefighters have responded to 561 wildfires so far this year and over 80% of those have been human starts. So, we applaud and appreciate Utahns who are recreating safely. And we just have to keep this up as we go through this again, very, very dangerous and dry time in our state. July through September are traditionally our most challenging months. And so, we certainly have work to do. I've talked to many of our local firefighters who are just so grateful for the work of Utahns. They've been able to get ahead of fires. They haven't been as stretched thin as we expected because of the conditions. And so, we're trending in a positive direction, but that's only because people are vigilant and have made actual changes in their behaviors. So, thank you for that. 

Now, I just want to talk about our COVID situation a little bit. Two weeks ago, I had shared that I hear from people whose loved ones are dying from COVID or being hospitalized from COVID and how disappointing that that has been for them and how sad we are for those families who are unnecessarily facing those hospitalizations and deaths. Our number of COVID cases continue to rise. Our hospitalizations had risen, they dip back down, they're climbing again right now. And so, we're always worried about the hospitalization side of things. And of course, when you have more cases, you have more hospitalizations. Eventually you have more fatalities as well, and we're reporting those fatalities will likely have another large case number today.

It won't surprise me to see that where Thursdays are always our worst days, they have been throughout the pandemic. And so, we expect to see large numbers again, as those continue to climb, but also again, people who are vaccinated, we are still having, we are having breakthrough cases, but they're rare again in 90 to 95%, 96% breakthrough cases and hospitalizations and fatalities are all amongst unvaccinated people.

So, we say it again and again, there is a little bit of positive news there as well, and that is that we have seen vaccination rates start to climb again, not huge leaps, but they are coming. They are moving in a positive direction. And so, if you have been putting it off, for whatever reason, as young people who are eligible for the vaccine are getting ready to go back to school, now is a great time to get them vaccinated so that they can be fully vaccinated when school starts next month.

But as I mentioned now, we do have some public stories of people who were speaking out, who were un-vaccinated, who have contracted COVID and had really terrible outcomes. We've had people, you can see these stories. Some of you have written these stories, and there was a story from a prominent radio personality, Hans Olsen. A good friend of his, he shared, he has spent time in the ICU with a dear friend who was unvaccinated and got COVID.

I know Lisa Riley Roche wrote, she wrote a story yesterday or the day before, about a triathlete who regrets not getting vaccinated because he nearly died after contracting COVID. There was also a story from the Tri-County Health Department of a nurse in the Uinta basin, who ended up with a serious case of COVID. And now can't walk up a flight of stairs without being winded. And she's now trying to warn her community, which has one of the lowest vaccination percentages in the state. And so, again, we just keep pleading and asking people, we know why the cases are going up.

We know why hospitalizations are going up, and it's just because we need more people to get vaccinated. And I promise you that disease is worse than the vaccine. I can't make it clearer than that, that the disease is far worse than the vaccine. And we desperately need you to get vaccinated. We will report today more than 241 people in the hospital with COVID. One month ago, there were 161 people in the hospital with COVID. So those are numbers that we know we can change them. We have the answer there. 

And with that, I think that's probably plenty. I want to make sure since we have so many of you that we leave more time for questions. 

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor with the idea of drought continuing on, and 98% of the state in these conditions, are you contemplating further restrictions?

GOVERNOR COX: So again, those restrictions as they occur, will always happen at the local water district level. And so, we're, again, we're trending right where we thought we would trend, these latest rainstorms are great. And we'll kind of take the edge off of that. What we're really worried about is what happens next year.

Again, we have enough water from a culinary perspective to get through this year. We're fine. Now, there are some jurisdictions. We saw this, I think Hyde Park a couple of weeks ago, where they have a single system. So, people watering their lawns. It's the same system as their drinking water. And what you will see sometimes is their wells are not keeping up with the demand. And so, they had to go into some fairly severe restrictions to make sure that they had drinking water available, but we do have enough storage capacity in the state to get through this year.

If we have another year like this one, that's where things get as especially dicey. And so, we are contemplating, Ben, longer term changes and restrictions, and that's where we're working with the legislature. I've talked about some of those, what we're doing with unnecessary grass, grass that doesn't get used for anything other than just purely visual, park strips in communities, looking at requirements in HOAs, all kinds of requirements to both cut back on the amount of new lawn that is going in, and then incentivizing changes for existing businesses and homes to cut down. And of course, with agriculture as well.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: What kinds of things are you looking at with agriculture?

GOVERNOR COX: So, we've been talking with our agriculture folks, looking at incentivizing some of the changes that have already started. I mean, many of the there's been a long and steady progress towards utilizing better forms of technology to water crops that take less, less water. And the ag community has been very good. They've been at the table with us from the beginning. They're looking at finding new ways to improve agriculture output with less water. And so, we're hoping to get some money to incentivize that as well.

I will tell you from a drought perspective, we were also working on funding for our farmers.

This is something I think worth mentioning that as dire as it is with residential watering, it's far worse in our agriculture community. This has been well reported, but because we had a bad year last year in ag with COVID and the disruptions in supply chains, this year could put farmers out of business. And while there is federal funding available for drought relief, it is very cumbersome, and there's a lot of red tape. It often takes a year or two to get that funding and farmers can't wait a year or two, and they can't feed their livestock. That's the biggest problem, it's feed for livestock. And so, when you can't feed your livestock, you have to sell it off and get rid of it. And that means you're selling off calves use, you know the younger stock, and then you don't have that stock for next year. 

So, it puts you behind for multiple generations. We also, the average age of a farmer now is over 60 in the state of Utah, which means many of these farmers will just say, "I'm done, I'm out and I'm going to sell my land." And we lose open space. We lose food production. That's just not good. So, we're hopeful. We're working with the federal delegation, having conversations right now to see if there are things that we can do to help help with relief for farmers right now, instead of a year or two from now.

CONNOR RICHARDS, DAILY HERALD: Governor, there's been many cities, and counties, and municipalities who have implemented watering restrictions, such as an irrigation water. So, for example, the city of Lehi has even gone as far as to implement a thousand dollar fine for people who over-water their lawns. What are your thoughts on restrictions like this? And what do you see as being the best practices or best policies that cities and counties can implement?

GOVERNOR COX: So, we're very supportive of those types of restrictions. And in fact, I think every water district in the state has some types of restrictions in place right now. And that's critical. Like I know we're doing that at our own home in Fairview, on our own farm. So, we encourage water districts, they know their situation better than anyone else, and they can make those decisions based on their storage capacity and their average usage. Enforcement's going to be key on that. We've seen, Lehi's doing that. Weber Water has three strikes, and you're out policy where your irrigation water is actually shut off if you violate the watering hours or the days of the week that you're able to water. And so that's going to have to be part of this.

Water pricing is always something that we're going to have to look at in the desert. We're rational human beings. And we make decisions based on lots of different factors. And so, pricing is certainly one of those things, and a fine is one way to get people's attention for sure. And so, I think water districts also talk with each other and they're learning. I will say, I do have to give a shout out. I mean, we always kind of focus on the negative of this, but we have seen a reduction in usage in almost every water district in the state.

So, people really are taking this seriously when you compare water usage this year versus past years on a per capita basis, people are reacting and making a difference. And those types of restrictions will encourage everyone to do it. Not just the ones that are paying attention.

BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: Governor the Consumer price index is up over reported 5.5% since last year, gas prices in Utah way above the national average, housing prices continue to soar. Is it time for you and the legislature to provide tax relief for Utah families? And if not, what should you be doing to ease financial burdens of people in Utah. 

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, it's a great question. Thanks, Brian. We're very concerned and I've mentioned it in this forum or other similar forums over the past couple months, how concerned we are with the potential for inflation. I mean not the potential, it's here. It's well-documented, as you mentioned, a 5.4 or 5.5% inflation last month. And so, I think it's something that everyone should be concerned about.

There are lots of factors of this. I can't remember if I mentioned this before, but I had a conversation several weeks ago with the head of the federal reserve bank from San Francisco. And we're part of that region and ask specifically about inflation and the response I got was kind of a mixed bag. And there's no question that inflation is happening. The question is whether it's short-term inflation or long-term inflation.

So, one thing we know is that coming out of pandemic, and we've seen this in other parts of the world, that there will always be a gap between consumer demand and production, which will lead to inflation. So, as you come out of a pandemic, people are getting back to normal before supply chains get back to normal. So, there's a good chance that we will always see inflation coming out of a pandemic. The question is though, is this more than just that? And I think it is, I don't think you can just keep putting trillions of dollars of money into a system and not expect that there will be some type of inflation, that just, I mean, that's economics 101. It's very, very simple. So, I don't think you can just point to, hey, this is coming out of a pandemic.

Although I will say this, the United States is far ahead of the rest of the world in vaccinations and supply chains aren't just nationally based, they're global based. And so, supply chains and production is still a struggle in other countries, which will lead to inflation as well. But I do think it's broader than that. I know there are a few categories that are really driving it right now. You mentioned housing being one, certainly here in the United States, in Utah that's true. Gasoline prices also driving it, but inflation is the worst kind of tax on the poor, inflation absolutely hits the poor harder than anyone else. They feel it as transportation costs go up, grocery prices go up, everything follows. And so, sorry, that's a long way to get to an answer to your question. 

The answer is yes, I think if there is room for tax relief this coming session, and we haven't had those direct conversations yet, the legislature is taking some much-deserved time off, not the legislature, but legislative staff is taking some much deserve time off. They didn't get any time off last year because of the pandemic. And we had more special sessions than ever before last year. And so, we will coming back in to August and September, we'll start to have those conversations, but I would be very supportive of tax relief-

REPORTER: How much?

GOVERNOR COX: Based on inflation. Well, I don't know. I have to see the numbers. We'll start to work through those and make some recommendations to the legislature. But I suspect that they will agree with me.

BRIAN MULLAHY, KUTV2: Do you have a preference? Do you have a philosophical preference in terms of where to cut taxes?

GOVERNOR COX: You, know, I don't have strong philosophical preferences, again, I want to look at where inflation is hitting the hardest, what that looks like and where we can help the most people. So those, I think those things matter, we do still have some tax on food. It's a reduced, it's a lower amount of tax. Again, that's one area where we're potentially, and that's mostly at the local level that the state tax obviously isn't there, but at the local level, that's one area where we might, could see a change. So, you know, and I hate to spit ball because it's so early, but I want to make sure that whatever change we make impacts the most Utahns and those that are feeling the repercussions of inflation the most.

BRIAN SCHOTT, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE: Governor, how harmful has some of the anti-vaccination rhetoric that we've been seeing primarily on right-wing may media, Fox News. How harmful is that been to the efforts here in the state and guess overall, to get people to take the vaccine.

GOVERNOR COX: So, Brian, it's a good question. And I don't have any hard data that would tell us that we've seen based on some of these reports or whatever this propaganda that's coming out, that it had a significant impact. I'd have to look. We are constantly serving people to see if trends are changing. So, I'd have to go back and look at and compare those numbers to see if we've seen any change from say January where people were the numbers that said they would get it, versus the numbers that say they will get it now.

BRIAN SCHOTT, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE:  But how do you push back against this constant drum beat.

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, I know. But let me finish, whether I have the data or not, I think it's harmful. It's certainly not helpful. And it does concern me deeply. I agree with some who have said it's ridiculous. And here's the thing, like, I'm very proud of President Trump. And I've said this many times, I'm very proud of Operation Warp Speed. In fact, I've said that I think that that years from now, decades from now, we'll look back on Operation Warp Speed as one of the greatest advancements of medicine in human history and one of the best things to happen during this. And I think Republicans and the president should be taking credit for what happened. 

I'm grateful that President Trump got the vaccine. I mean, those are things that I think we should be saying, but I don't think we can take credit for getting the vaccine and then tell people that there's something wrong with the vaccine and you shouldn't be getting it. That just doesn't make sense to me. I think it's ridiculous what's happening. I mean, we have these talking heads who have gotten the vaccine and are telling other people not to get the vaccine, that kind of stuff is just, it's ridiculous, it's dangerous, it's damaging. And it's killing people. I mean, it's literally killing their supporters. And that makes no sense to me.

HAILEY HENDRICKS, ABC4 UTAH: Governor is a state in discussion about what they will do if COVID-19 cases keep rising and are there to help those who are vaccine hesitant.

GOVERNOR COX: Well, so the plans are to just continue to get people vaccinated. I mean, those are the plans. Again, that's the only answer, the vaccines work better than masks, vaccines work better than social distancing, vaccines just work. And they allow us to do all the other things that we want to do. And so, yes, we are absolutely continuing with our efforts. And this goes back to Brian, you asked this as well. That we are continuing to encourage and inform, and help people get vaccines.

We're working very closely with the medical community. I've said this before, but this is now we've moved from kind of the mass vaccination phase to kind of the hand-to-hand combat where you have to have conversations with people. And those conversations might take a half hour. Those conversations may take a week or two weeks, but as primary care physicians whom are trusted by... I've helped families for years, can sit down and have these conversations. I've had doctors tell me, it's amazing. Like, they'll have people come in who say they will never get the vaccine. And 20 minutes later they're giving them the vaccine. And so that's, it's slow going, but every one of those vaccinations is a potential life saved. And so, we're going to continue to work, make it easier than ever to get them and do everything we can to help people make that choice.

HAILEY HENDRICKS, ABC4 UTAH: Is the state in discussion of what they will do if COVID-19 cases keep rising.

GOVERNOR COX: I mean, certainly we talk about this, but the discussion is, we know what to do and that's to get more people vaccinated. That's the answer.

REPORTER: Are there any new strategies that you're considering to get more people vaccinated? Or is it just continuing on that encouraging doctors to have those conversations?

GOVERNOR COX: No new strategies. I mean we're always looking at all strategies. I mean, we've talked a lot in here and with each of you about the potential for incentives, we haven't made any additional progress there. I don't have anything more to report today on that, but I, again I will say that I am optimistic, there's no real reason for the increase that we're seeing in vaccinations right now, except potentially the rising cases. I think that, there's still a group of people who are vaccine hesitant but not, they're not completely opposed to the vaccine. And I think a lot of them thought, "Well, as long as cases are going down and it's going away, then I'm fine." But now that cases are going up and we are seeing more hospitalizations. I think those people are saying, "Yeah, probably it's time to go and get this." Family members encouraging others to get it. So, we're making progress and I'm more optimistic today than I was even two or three weeks ago. 

KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERET NEWS:  Governor, the discussion around the solution to the little Cottonwood canyon over whether that's the gondola or enhanced bus service is starting to heat up. And you've said before that you're interested in leaning toward the gondola option, but as public comments have come in, has your position changed at all? Do you still favor the gondola over the- 

GOVERNOR COX: I'm keeping a very open on this one because as I was able to go through data that was delivered by the department of transportation, and by the way, interestingly, this was the first time I think that they've ever, and maybe that any department of transportation has actually released two preferred options instead of just one. And that made a lot of sense to me because they're very different options, but both showed tremendous support as well as an ability to fix the problem for a reduced amount of money. And so, they're similar in that sense, but again, very different in the way that they deliver people from the bottom to the top of the mountain. And so, I think both options are fantastic. There are pros and cons to both of them. And so, I'm keeping an open mind and just waiting for those comments to come in. And then I look forward to sitting down with local officials and state officials, legislature and UDOT to help make that final decision.

KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERET NEWS: Considering how expensive this will be. Do you think ski resorts should have a significant skin in the game considering, say the gondola would go straight to Alta or Snowbird. What are your thoughts on that? And are they doing enough to.

GOVERNOR COX: Yes, so I think the answer is yes, I think they should have skin in the game, but also, I want to say they want to have skin in the game. They are very interested in conversations that I've had, or that they've had with others that have been reported back to me that the ski resorts in that canyon, they want to be part of the solution and they recognize that they will benefit from this. This is good for them. It's good for business. And so, they're very excited about this, is something they've been pushing for, for a long time. And they're certainly at the table and they they've said all along, they're willing to participate. And what that participation ultimately looks like, I don't know. Those conversations will be had as we get closer to a final decision, but they're pretty excited about it. And so are we.

KATIE MCKELLAR, DESERET NEWS: Is this too good for business considering how many people are already getting up to those canyons and the lift lines this past season were so long. I mean, getting more and more people up that canyon, how do you balance that? And is this too good for business?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, I'm not as worried about that piece. Again, we want to get people at that canyon in an environmentally safe manner and they have their business models and their plans, but we'll continue to work closely with them. We want to make it easier for people to get up there and to enjoy the slopes. And waiting for two hours in your car. They're still getting up there, but they're not enjoying the ride.

REPORTER: Okay, that's all the time we have for our television broadcast. Join us back here next month for the governor's monthly news conference. And thank you for joining us.

NARRATOR: This has been the governor's monthly news conference. For transcripts, full video and more information visit PBSUTAH.ORG/GOVERNOR.

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