In his State of the State last year, Gov. Jared Polis said Colorado “can solve any problem we encounter.” He wasn’t counting on COVID-19. Now he’s counting pennies in the state budget and might have to count on a second term to accomplish his ambitious agenda.
The pandemic has consumed half of his first term, and “it ain’t over yet. I barely remember those wonderful days” before COVID, said the governor from Boulder recently.
“It’s not what any governor would want to focus on,” he said. “We want to focus on the future, building Colorado stronger, improving schools — all the things I ran on.”
Polis’ first year, aided by Democratic control of the General Assembly, was a hit parade, with wins on his signature issues: education and health care. State-paid full-day kindergarten and a reinsurance program that lowered health insurance premiums in the individual market were among his accomplishments. His second year looked to be a continuation.
As his third legislative session atop the state’s power pyramid begins, with his reelection campaign looming next year, COVID-19 could again prove to be a time-killer.
In addition to figuring out how to help Coloradans struggling financially from the recession, Polis now has to make up for lost time. His campaign promise to lower the cost of health care was derailed last year when sponsors pulled a bill that would have created a public option health insurance plan, to create competition with private insurers by imposing price caps to back the government insurance.
This year the bill will be back — an opportunity for Polis to get his agenda back on track.
It begins: a year under COVID
On March 4, 2020, Polis spent part of the day on a bill signing in his office, a weekly meeting with Democratic leadership, and another with a tax reform study group at the Carriage House, at the governor’s mansion.
March 5 started like most days. By 9 a.m. Polis was in Loveland, speaking at a BizWest meeting, and by noon was back in his office at the Capitol, signing more bills.
His agenda for the foreseeable future officially blew up at 4:30 p.m., when he convened a press conference and broke the news to an anxious state: The first case of COVID-19 had been identified in Colorado.
Polis didn’t take a full day off after that for more than three months. He worked every day during Passover, an important holiday to the state’s first Jewish governor. Things that normally filled his daily calendar vanished, replaced by daily COVID updates and constant contact with health care providers, hospital CEOs, and emergency operations and federal sources of assistance.
On March 11 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 25 Polis asked the White House for a disaster declaration. He signed an order that amounted to a request that Coloradans stay home, taking down the robust economy he had hoped would serve him well when he ran for another term.
He set up a makeshift hospital for a predicted overflow of patients at the Colorado Convention Center and The Ranch in Northern Colorado, venues that were ultimately unneeded.
Since then, more than 500,000 Americans have died, including nearly 6,000 Coloradans who have died as a direct result of COVID-19.
Colorado’s first coronavirus case was a 30-something skier who landed at Denver International Airport and headed to the mountains, like millions of others might have done last year, if not for the virus.
Polis gave him a call when the man was quarantined in a Summit County hotel. Authorities never publicly named the state’s history-maker. By the time March 2021 dawned, Colorado had eclipsed 431,000 cases.
Polis wasn’t surprised as the virus spread across the planet.
"It was like a time bomb waiting to go off," he said. That first case was "go time."
“We had been waiting and getting ready, and one case wasn’t likely to be the only case,” said the governor. “It was the dam ready to burst.”
Every state was on its own due to the country's lack of a unified pandemic strategy, Polis said.
“It was a national embarrassment on how [COVID-19] was handled,” he said.
The biggest failure at the national level was on messaging, Polis said. President Trump had a soapbox for mask-wearing and social distancing, and had he used that soapbox, it would have saved tens of thousands of lives, Polis said.
Polis did, however, applaud the former administration on Operation Warp Speed and expedited approval of vaccines.
Time in the spotlight
These days, Polis is looking to complete a political inside straight. And the missing card is Joe Biden. Biden’s time as vice president aligns with first six of the eight years Polis spent in Congress.
Biden was Obama’s steady, experienced hand on legislative matters, having served in the Senate from 1973 to 2009.
Polis found Biden to be a regular companion in Democratic Caucus meetings and negotiations.
More importantly, Polis said he knows a lot of members of Biden’s key staff, including former colleagues from the Hill. Such relationships are leading to good operational relationships at almost every agency, Polis said.
Early on in national crisis last year, Polis rose as a national gubernatorial star of the left, while his criticism of the White House made him a target for Colorado conservatives, small businesses and workers sidelined from their jobs.
In May, Polis was summoned to the White House by the Republican commander-in-chief.
“The president and I have had our differences on different policies,” Polis said then, Trump at his side. “This is not a time to air differences on unrelated policies. This is a time for all Americans to work together, because we all have a common foe.”
Trump met with Polis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum that day in May, with Trump referring to the duo as “two governors who are working much harder than they thought they would have to work.”
Polis is steeped in what didn’t work, but more importantly, what did.
“Absolutely, we could have handled it better in the early days,” he conceded.
One move he doesn’t regret: moving his partner, Marlon Reis, up on the vaccine list, a move that generated a lot of controversy and criticism last month. Reis, young and healthy, had the virus just weeks earlier, and critics scoffed at the suggestion the first gentleman was an essential worker for the state.
It was about sending a message, Polis said.
“My messaging around vaccines is not geared toward the several percent of people who want them,” Polis said.
The incident is bound to be used against him next year, when he’s out to again close the deal with voters who will weigh his decisions under fire.
The governor said he wants to inspire confidence in people who are what he calls “casually hesitant,” around 20% to 30% who will probably get the vaccine but not right away.
“I can say firsthand, I got it, it’s no big deal. ... The more we can familiarize people with it, the better.”
That will be the challenge of this summer, Polis added: ending the pandemic and getting to herd immunity, at 70% to 75% of the population vaccinated.
Time to learn
Among the biggest challenges: closing schools. Polis said it wasn’t a mistake at the time — it was the right thing to do — but “it’s been so darn hard to get them open again.”
That was something Polis didn’t see coming. “We probably could have closed for a month to get safety protocols in place. ... We’re still better than some states and almost back to normal with K-8.” But that was frustrating, he said.
What’s worked well: Mask-wearing and other COVID-19 safety protocols. Polis said his constant messaging on masks is not to those who wear them, but to those who are what he calls “mask hesitant.” He also attributed some of that success to the business community, which saw mask-wearing as a path to reopening and a return to normal.
Polis said he wished the 5-Star Variance Protection program, started by Mesa County in December, had begun sooner statewide. That program allows for more capacity at businesses, despite where the county sits on the state’s COVID-19 dial. Businesses in the program apply for certification from the local public health agency, contingent on 100% mask-wearing by employees and customers, daily symptom checks, an effort to promote the state’s Exposure Notification app, recording customer info for contact tracing purposes and following industry-specific social-distancing protocols.
“I wish we’d thought of it,” Polis said. “It just took us a while to line that up.”
What’s been hardest in dealing with the pandemic has been the loss of life, the governor said. He’s lost two friends, one in their 60s and one in their 70s, both previously in good health.
“They should have been with us for many years to come,” Polis said.
Then there’s his own situation: He and Reis both tested positive for the virus in November, and Reis was hospitalized for two days with it, leading to a couple of days without child care.
But there’s nothing that compares to losing loved ones, Polis said, pointing to state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, who lost her mother-in-law, her husband’s uncle and her husband’s grandfather in a matter of days.
Time to focus
“Me and my senior team are not able to just focus on a pandemic; there’s a million other things, education, fixing potholes, higher ed, filing taxes and getting relief out — all the things the state does,” Polis said. It’s meant keeping the state as efficient and productive as possible in a bid to stay on track.
Polis calls it a matter of focus. Ever the optimist, he sees some good coming out of the pandemic for state government operations. The state will be able to reduce building square footage by a million square feet, given that many state employees do like working from home, Polis said. It won’t be at the level in place now, which he said is around 60% to 70% of employees working from home. He estimates that eventually about 20% to 30% of state employees will continue to work from home.
It will be better for productivity, employee morale, getting traffic off the roads and saving the state money on overhead. Those are things that would have likely taken 10 years to get to, instead of one. That’s making lemonade out of lemons, he said.
Polis is headed into the reelection campaign season later this year for his second run for governor.
This time around, his gubernatorial campaign will look different: more virtual, but still featuring a physical presence, he said.
Polis quickly dismissed the rumors that he's interested in the presidency: “Definitely not,” he said.
If he continues to serve the rest of this term and win reelection, he indicated his path after elected office might lead him back to the business world.
“I look forward to spending time with family and kids and pursuing different opportunities in the entrepreneurial sector. It can be a fun job to be a former governor, too,” he added.