On March 5, six weeks after the first novel coronavirus case was identified in Washington state, Colorado had its first known case, detected in a man in Summit County.
It’s been six months of life in a pandemic in Colorado. Friday, Gov. Jared Polis talked about what he’s learned, what he would pass on to the next governor who has to deal with a once-in-a-century pandemic, and how he works with people who object to the way he's handled the crisis.
On Friday, Polis spent the day in northeastern Colorado, with stops in Sterling — and confrontations from protesters — to a farm in Washington County, visits to nonprofits helped by the state’s COVID-19 relief fund in Yuma and Morgan counties, and talks with city and county officials about how the state can better help local governments with economic recovery.
The governor granted a one-on-one interview during a ride along during part of the day.
When asked about the toughest decision he’s had to make during the pandemic, Polis pointed to one of the first: the “Stay At Home” order issued on March 25, just three weeks into the pandemic.
That order stated that the steps taken previously by the administration to quell the pandemic -- closing schools and ski areas, requiring people to work from home whenever possible and suspending elective and non-emergency surgeries -- had not been enough. The Stay-at-Home order was just that: ordering Coloradans who did not work in essential or critical businesses to stay home unless going out briefly to buy groceries or care for vulnerable people. That order remained in place until April 26.
“They’re all very unpleasant situations,” Polis said. The Stay-at-Home order, which he called “brutal,” was a way to break the trajectory of the virus.
Polis is no stranger to responding to crisis situations. He pointed to the 2013 floods that hit the 2nd Congressional District particularly hard. In the flood, the active phase was a week or two with a very long recovery, four to five years until some areas came back. There were six deaths, he noted. With coronavirus, 1,900 Coloradans have died. “The active phase [with COVID-19] is so much longer."
Polis' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been cited as more successful than neighboring states, such as Arizona, Utah and Texas. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as of September 11, Colorado's number of positive cases per 100,000 population is 10,446; in Arizona, it's 28,439; in Utah 17,473, and in Texas, it's 23,143. Polis attributes the success in part to one of his biggest decisions, the mask mandate that he ordered on July 16 and which he extended for another 30 days on Saturday.
Arizona and Utah do not have statewide mask orders; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered one on July 3.
What would he have done differently? Polis sounded frustrated with where the entire nation was in its readiness for a pandemic. “We — America — needed better preparedness for a pandemic, period.” The countries that had it — South Korea, Japan, Taiwan -- for them “it was a small bump in the road. They were prepared, he said.
He pointed to the state partnership recently announced with Apple and Google for an app that will help with contact tracing. “South Korea had this basic product six months ago,” Polis said, the frustration in his voice clear. “That’s how they’ve handled it. The disruption in those countries was minimal.”
America was caught completely off guard, he added. “We have to build this capacity for the next time, whether it’s 10 years or 100 years, there will be another pandemic. We need to learn from this."
Polis was asked what his best advice would be for a future governor — whether 10 years or 100 years from now — for dealing with the next pandemic. “Be honest, be transparent, set realistic expectations, be upfront with the best science you have and be prepared. We’ve tried to do that every step of the way.”
It has often been a rocky road. Some of those who confronted Polis outside the Logan County Courthouse in Sterling Friday morning held signs asking him to drop the mask mandate. Many others waved Trump/Pence signs, and still others held signs calling for Polis to be recalled. Most appeared angry.
Polis has taken heat, mostly from rural and conservative Coloradans, over his decisions during the pandemic. It's included several lawsuits: over the mask mandate, the order to restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. or to limit capacity, and a successful lawsuit over online petition signatures for ballot measures, an order the Colorado Supreme Court said was unconstitutional and overturned in July. The objections also have come from mostly rural county sheriffs all over the state who would not impose criminal penalties for those who refuse to wear masks. Many said their decision was because the mask order is a civil matter, not a criminal one.
His state patrol detail moved the governor’s car several times toward the end of the visit to the Sterling Annex, which has been converted from a county courtroom and jail to a co-working site
Polis was asked how he deals with those kinds of situations.
He charitably said he didn’t think the protesters were unfriendly. “I talked to them for a bit and said hi. They wanted me to take my mask off, which I was happy to do since we were outside and we talked. I wish we had more time.”
He said he’s accustomed to hearing from those who disagree, dating back to his days in Congress, and claimed he’s more experienced being protested than not. During his Congressional days, it was protests from the left. Now it’s from the right, he said.
But he called Friday's protests a “celebration of our democracy and people’s right to be heard. Most of them would have been happy to do that,” although some just wanted to yell.
“I think they’re every bit as Coloradan as anyone else. They can cheer and protest the governor, oppose or support policies,” including policies requiring masks. “Colorado has a lot of great people, with different persuasions and ideologies.”
On a lighter note, Polis was asked about his favorite mask. “I have my Rockies, Broncos masks, and as I visit different schools, most have printed up their own. I have a collection going, six or seven.”
As a sports guy, his sports masks are clearly among his top choices. The Rockies mask was handmade in Pueblo, he said, and one of the Broncos masks is an official one from the organization.
But he also noted that an aunt had sent him masks, too. “I probably have to say hers are my favorite. Sorry, Aunt Janice,” he said with a chuckle. Polis said hers were made out of a special fabric and are definitely the most stylish masks that he’s worn, including in some of the press conferences. She made masks for his two children, too, which they wear to school.
Polis says he’s been tested for COVID-19 probably five or six times now, including at the White House, with the Broncos, and for demonstration purposes on how easy tests are to get and take, including at the Pepsi Center and the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs.
While protesters showed up only once, in Sterling, they loomed large over at least part of the day. A planned visit to the Merino School District in Morgan County was cancelled due to complaints from parents who said the schools do not allow visitors and felt the Governor should be held to the same standard. The location of a farm in Washington County that hosted a visit was kept under wraps due to concerns by the owner over protesters showing up.
The day came to a somewhat peculiar end. The ride-along took place in Fort Morgan, beginning at Morgan Community College and ending at a domestic violence center. When this reporter and a member of the governor’s staff headed back to the community college to pick up vehicles, the governor’s security detail hit the gas. “We’re being followed, ma’am,” the officer said, pointing to a truck that began following the car closely from the shelter, at above normal speed limits. The governor had headed back to Denver in a different vehicle.