Leave COVID-19 decisions to locals: Huntsman shares ideas on handling pandemic, other Utah issues

ST. GEORGE — During a recent campaign stop in Southern Utah, Jon Huntsman Jr. sat down with St. George News to discuss various issues, ranging from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to the Lake Powell Pipeline.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks with voters are a meet-and-greet event held in Washington City, Utah, May 22, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Huntsman, 60, is running for the Republican nomination for governor in Utah, which will be decided in a primary vote June 30. Previously, he was elected as Utah’s governor in 2004 and again in 2008, though he left office in 2009 to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011. He had a short-lived presidential campaign in 2012 and later served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Trump administration prior to returning to Utah to run for a third term as governor.

In the private sector, Huntsman has served as a board member and CEO of the Huntsman Corporation and also sat on the board of various other companies, such as Caterpillar, Ford Motor Company and Chevron Corporation.

See Huntsman’s answers to St. George News’ questions below:

How might have you responded differently to the COVID-19 pandemic if you were governor currently? And how might you address it if it continues to be a concern into 2021?

“I think we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in politicizing it,” Huntsman said of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Huntsman cited how a little-known pandemic caused by a virus called the “Hong Kong flu” in 1968-69 was left to health professionals to deal with. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that pandemic killed an estimated 100,000 Americans and around a million people worldwide. Most deaths involved people who were 65 or older.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks with St. George News on various issues during a campaign stop in St. George, Utah, May 21, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“The one thing we did was leave it in the hands of health professionals and pretty much kept things open,” he said. “(We) took those who were most at risk and isolated them … And we basically let the public health professionals manage the process for the most part.”

Huntsman added that a “shout out” should be given to health professionals who are doing the best they can with the information they have while educating the public. Many of them have likely never dealt with a pandemic before, so “this is a first for them.”

Huntsman said he believes decision-making for how to respond to the virus should be left in the hands of local elected officials.

“Why we’d treat the whole state like it was the Wasatch Front is a mystery to me,” he said, explaining that the voting public and those who represent them should decide when it’s appropriate to shut down and reopen economic engagement in their communities.

Participants in the “Walk for Freedom” demonstration protesting coronavirus closures and restrictions, St. George, Utah, April 15, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I don’t know that that has necessarily worked out so well,” Huntsman said. “We’ve been a little late in getting things open.”

Huntsman added that he is in favor of public health professionals giving their best advice and direction to the public and then letting the public govern itself accordingly.

“That’s called liberty,” he said. “That’s what makes this country different from Russia or China where I have lived before.”

How do you propose to help Utah recover from the economic downturn created in response to the pandemic? How would you help small businesses and communities, such as those in Southern Utah that rely heavily on events and tourism?

While noting that decisions made by state leaders in regard to the pandemic and the economy were likely made based on the best information they had at the time, Huntsman nonetheless said he would have preferred that the state be the “first responder” to small businesses in need of aid.

“Our biggest challenge over time would be people getting laid off, not being allowed to stay on payroll,” he said. “And that could create structural unemployment long term, which could be one of our big challenges.”

A sign in the window of a restaurant urges people to support local businesses by ordering takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic, St. George, Utah, March 21, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Huntsman suggested taking $300 million from the state’s $1 billion rainy-day fund and using it to provide working capital lines of credit to small businesses to could encourage them to keep employees on payroll. It wouldn’t last forever, he said, perhaps six months, as he believes the pandemic will eventually subside.

“Small businesses need cash,” he said. “It might come in via PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), but that’s all a bureaucratic exercise, and therefore there’s no guarantee about when that happens or who benefits, because the devil is always in the detail, and it’s always death by bureaucracy with these things.

“So let the state be first responder. We’ve got a rainy day fund of a billion bucks. It’s raining outside, let’s see if we can maybe do what we can do, along with the banking sector, to encourage small businesses and keep people on payroll.”

Do you support the Lake Powell Pipeline?

“I signed the legislation to get this going in 2006,” Huntsman said. “It has not moved since 2006.”

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks with voters are a meet-and-greet event held in Washington City, Utah, May 22, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Though an estimated $30 million in studies have been done and an environmental study overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation is currently under way, it’s taken 14 years to get to this point. One reason for the delay is because it hasn’t been a priority for state leadership, Huntsman said.

“If you had a leader who’s said since 2006 … ‘We want to get this done,’ it becomes a priority. It would have been done. But it’s been a decade where we haven’t seen it move. A lot of complaining. A lot of promises, but no movement.

“So the only way to change that is by getting the right leader in place who deems it to be a priority. I don’t know how we take care of our economic needs from a culinary standpoint without the Lake Powell Pipeline project moving forward.”

What is the advantage of having you as the next governor of Utah?

Then Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. gives the State of the State address at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, Jan. 22, 2008. Huntsman seeks to return to the governor’s seat in 2021. | Photo courtesy of C-SPAN, St. George News

Huntsman has repeatedly touted his prior experience as Utah governor and what he’s learned since serving as ambassador to Russia and China. He also highlighted his experience in the business world with his work on the boards of large companies like Chevron Corporation and Ford Motor Company.

“By virtue of what COVID-19 has done to a lot of states, and a lot of markets, there’s going to be a desire to find a safe haven (for) capital, companies, good ideas. And I want Utah to be that safe haven,” he said. “You understand how that safe haven works and what needs to be done in order to maximize that performance and how we position ourselves by a multiplicity of experiences.”

Being the governor before was the best job he ever had and the greatest honor of his life, Huntsman said, adding that all he’s learned and experienced since then can make him twice as effective in what he can do for the people of Utah.

“That’s what I bring to the table, and I am very excited about it,” he said.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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