When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced the April 27 start of a phased-in relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions on business, many county health officials refused, saying in effect, “no thanks, we’re staying closed.”
The counties, which together represent half of the state’s population, are Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Gilpin, and Jefferson. All but Denver and Gilpin are allowing curbside pickup of retail purchases but no other loosening of business restrictions.
In the rest of the state, as of Friday, May 1 full reopening of retail stores (which must implement social distancing, employee mask-wearing, and other safety measures) is allowed and as of Monday, business offices may reopen (at 50% staffing, and with other requirements such as mandatory employee temperature tests in larger offices.)
These still-closed counties make unconvincing arguments that the economic and psychological pain they are causing is justified by potential public health gains.
Some counties say that there is inadequate testing or contact-tracing capacity. It is unlikely these problems will be remedied in two weeks. But businesses will fail during that time.
Boulder County says the delay will allow its health department to prepare “clear guidance” for businesses and residents to “increase compliance and minimize confusion.” What have they been doing for the last month? Jefferson County says they need to be sure of “the ability of the health care system to adequately treat all severe cases.” Yet no hospital in Colorado, even at last month’s peak in cases, came near reaching its treatment capacity.
More than half of COVID-19 deaths in Colorado — and more than three-quarters in Boulder County — have occurred among elderly residents of long-term care facilities. Does that justify shutting down entire counties rather than implementing a much more targeted defense strategy?
I don’t blame public health officials for focusing on public health. That’s what they’re trained and paid to do. Similarly, I have no problem with Trump adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci’s singular focus on how to defeat the spread of the virus rather than on the economic and social impact of society’s reaction to it. Again, that’s his job.
The difference between the federal response and Colorado’s response is that in the former, the decision maker (no matter what you think of him) was elected and is being advised not just by his public health officials but by economic and other advisers prior to formulating national policy.
Here in Colorado, however, the authority being used to shut down so much economic and social activity lies with unelected county public health officials who, even as they give lip service to the economic impacts of their orders, cannot be expected to adequately balance the beneficial “flattening the curve” aspects of restrictions on our activities with the widespread harm those same restrictions cause.
When I asked Jeff Zayach, the executive director of Boulder County Public Health, whether elected officials should have a say in a decision with the massive and multifaceted impact of a “stay at home and don’t open your business” order, he said “I think that public health decisions need to be in the hands of public health experts.”
Any decision that has such significant consequences for a large number of citizens for an extended time must be made by elected officials who are responsible to the voters they serve.
The Colorado Legislature should pass a law — that I believe Gov. Polis would support — requiring a county’s commissioners to approve any long-lasting countywide stay-at-home or business-closure orders before they can take effect or be enforced.
True experts should be advising our decision makers. But because of their understandable narrow focus they must not be empowered, on their own, even with the best of intentions for our health and safety, to shut down our businesses and restrict our freedom.
Ross Kaminsky hosts the award-winning “The Ross Kaminsky Show” weekdays 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 630 KHOW.